Go back to school to smooth career changes

By Vickie Elmer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Extra education -- whether an advanced degree, a seminar or a series of classes leading to certification -- can pave your career transition path or help those returning to work after several years' absence, career counselors say. It also may be helpful for some lateral moves in competitive fields.

"It is sort of a strategic decision -- education," said Bill Stokes, an executive recruiter and chairman of the Washington Networking Group. "The smarter, long-term, strategic thinking person does it" and adds to their talents and their networks with every class or seminar.

If you're currently employed, find out what your employer thinks is important for your advancement. Or check your organization's Web site -- many government agencies and some other employers have fairly specific career development plans. Knowing what is on that ladder will make your class selection easier.

Before you sign up for a class, ask yourself some questions about your career and career goals, said Dennis Sullivan, a career counselor at Northern Virginia Community College. Among the questions he recommends: "Is it time for me to change careers or to shift? Is there another skill set or competency that would make me more employable with this company?"

A big question often hits people as they're facing a layoff: "Is it time to go back and complete the degree I didn't finish?" When their job is in jeopardy or disappearing, they suddenly realize they may not be qualified to get in the door for a similar position elsewhere, Sullivan said.

Sullivan helps individuals plan their studies at Northern Virginia and update their skills. He and Stokes suggest three areas that are ripe for a career-enhancing class or two:

-- Computer and technical training, whether advanced or basic. "You can't have too many technical skills for today's workplace," said Sullivan.

-- Foreign language or ESL classes. Brush up on your second language or add a third. Sullivan suggests that professionals who grew up in another country ask the college to benchmark their English-speaking skills and then sign up for English as a Second Language classes to improve.

-- Professional certifications. A growing number of professions -- from project management to human resources -- offer advanced training and certifications that can help open doors.

Barbara Herzog, a career counselor in Washington, believes it's important to consider classes to keep an edge in your current job, as well as to move into a new one. To assess your needs in your current assignment, pull out your latest performance evaluation. "Then think about what skill or skills could have come in handy the past year. What did you have trouble doing, or what did you need to ask for help to do?" she said.

Look at the top performers in your department and determine what skills they have that you don't. And ask your boss "what skills does she think could help you do your job better or move you to a higher level," Herzog suggested.

Consider your goals -- and what sort of people you want to meet in class. If you have your sights set on a senior job, you may want to consider classes -- such as an MBA program -- where your cohorts are also ambitious professionals "who aspire to be CEO one day," said Stokes.

He knows a few people who went through the Leadership Washington or Leadership Fairfax program, for example. Afterward they said that it really helped their careers.

Unlike in pursuing a master's or bachelor's degree, in which a name university still matters, if you're going for a professional designation or certification, "it doesn't really matter as an employer if you've gotten your certification from one of the no-name universities," Stokes said.

Vickie Elmer is a freelance writer who writes about employment.

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