When Margaret Cooley graduated with a degree in recreational therapy from the University of Northern Colorado, she thought she would make a career of it. And she did—she made her mark in the field with clients in Colorado, Vermont, and Utah. But as her life circumstances changed, so did what she needed out of her career. “At that time, I needed something that wasn’t as many nights and weekends, and I needed something with benefits for my family,” she says.
In 2001, she was hired to a desk job at the University of Utah, and has been working in various positions and departments throughout the school’s employment system for the last 17 years. But in July, she hit a new milestone: she got her official certification as a pharmacy technician from Salt Lake Community College, and can now pivot into a new field. Although the move is one she wouldn’t have anticipated when she graduated from college, Ms. Cooley says it’s a byproduct of the modern career.
“Nowadays, you can’t stop learning. You have to be trainable, you have to continue your education, even if you’re in the same field your whole working years,” she says. “People need to be open to options and keep learning.”
One Degree Won’t Last A Lifetime
The days when a single degree or certification could last an employee throughout a 40-year career have gone the way of the rotary telephone and aspic-based entrees. With the rapid advances in technology, even a 10-year-old degree can be detrimental to an employee who hasn’t sought additional training, and some fields have disappeared entirely.
Although the need for continuing education is present across virtually all fields, nowhere is it more present than tech, where losing the pulse of the industry quickly turns into obsoleteness. “Everything’s moving so quickly now, particularly from a technology perspective, if you’re not supporting learning, if you don’t have that learner’s mindset, if you’re not improving, you’re going to be left behind,” says Jody Bailey, Chief Technology Officer at Pluralsight. “Business is business, but I think businesses have realized it’s necessary to keep from being left behind.”
Pluralsight’s learning modules and courses, crafted by industry experts, are designed with the programmer or IT professional in mind, he says, and the company tries hard to keep ahead of the skills those workers will need in the cutting-edge present and the near-future to stay relevant. Just as technology and the internet have progressed to demand more up-to-date skills out of workers, it has changed how Pluralsight approaches continued learning, says Mr. Bailey. The company originally started as an instructor-led professional development service before evolving to its current cloud-based form.
In keeping with its early roots, Mr. Bailey says while Pluralsight is useful to individual professionals, it really shines as an organization-wide resource to allow companies to keep their entire department or workforce at the cutting edge of industry knowledge—and to find assets they might not have known were already at their disposal.
Alternatives To The Master’s Degree
Continuing learning and advancement within a field can also require a more advanced degree—another area in which the internet has provided a multitude of options. From free- or low-cost services like Codecademy, Kadenze, or EdX, to online-based programs offered by traditional colleges and universities, to institutions like online-native and Utah-based Western Governor’s University, the options are as diverse as the people using them.
Brick-and-mortar schools have also honed their offerings to appeal to the working professional, providing executive programs that allow students to maintain their full-time job and work on a degree on nights and weekends. While the MBA and MPA remain popular, some schools are taking it a step further both in terms of their programs and reach.
The University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business has been recruiting students from across Canada and the American West for its fledgling Doctor of Business Administration program, which just will launch its first cohort in January. Targeted at executives and other high-level professionals, applicants to the PhD program have to have at least a decade of managerial experience, seven of which must have been at a senior or executive level. The goal of the program is to give research experience and methodology for high-level business professionals, says Jaana Woiceshyn, director of the program and a professor at the school.
Despite the location and demands of the partially on-campus program, which school officials estimate will take the average student three to four years to complete, it has also been specifically designed to allow students to keep their day job—no matter where that day job is located. Salt Lake City is only a two-hour plane ride away from Calgary, notes Ms. Woiceshyn, or professionals in Northern Utah can make the drive in a few hours. Additionally, the strength of the American dollar against its Canadian counterpart makes for a de facto discount on tuition, she says.
How To Navigate The Mid-Life Career Change
Like Ms. Cooley, Darrell Godfrey found himself in need of a career change. The military veteran’s experience as a combat engineer didn’t give him many options when he got home and his age and the wear and tear his body took because of his service made going back to his landscape business unfeasible, so he took stock of his skills.
“When you’re out-processed during the military, you do these questions and you put your MOS in a search engine to see what your opportunities are. Mine only generated four,” he says. “It was very limited. I’ve always worked on vehicles, I’ve always enjoyed working on vehicles, so I decided to go into the automotive industry and I love it.”
He turned to Salt Lake Community College, where he earned an associate’s in automotive tech and is currently finishing a second associate’s in diesel mechanics, with plans to complete a bachelor’s in automotive tech afterwards.
Rick Bouillon, Associate Vice President of Workforce and Economic Development with Salt Lake Community College, says one of the college’s goals is to create programs where students who might not be able to go to school full-time or can’t put off their economic plans for a full four years can get skills and certification that match what employers are looking for.
Companies and executives in Utah’s increasingly tech-centric economy frequently bemoan the talent shortage. For some looking to change careers, short-term training that helps them get the skills they need to help fill that shortage is another option. One of the local options is Helio Training, a bootcamp-style offshoot from Neumont University crafted for people interested in gaining web development, software testing, or user interface/user experience skills.
“The general populace knows that technology is the growing field for jobs,” says Weston Bell, Admissions Advisor at Helio Training, “but most of them don’t know how to get from where they’re at to that career. They think the only way is a four-year degree, because that’s how society has conditioned us. If you’re a parent with kids and a mortgage, you can’t afford to go back to school for four years full-time for that career.”
Helio has classroom- and online-based programs, and the option to take an intensive course over 13 weeks or part-time for twice that long. Although no degree or experience of any stripe is necessary to enroll, Amy Whittaker, Career Services Manager at Helio Training, says she sees a tangible difference from students who have come in the middle of their careers and have a different background to draw from.
“I see people with a bachelor’s or maybe a master’s degree–we’ve had people come from HR, engineering—and see them go from the physical space to seeing them go into the digital space and combine the two. The career changer and upskill and add to what you have is really cool,” Ms. Whittaker says.
At the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Elizabeth Carver, Director of the Workforce Program, Policy and Training Division, says she occasionally sees people who have been laid off or otherwise transitioned out of a long-term job to find their skills are lacking in the new labor force.
“There’s not really a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to this stuff. We try to have a conversation with the person. We want them to be successful. What do they like to do? What are they interested in?” she says. “Sometimes we have individuals in that circumstance who want a complete change. Sometimes we have individuals who come in and really liked their job and they just need help getting a couple additional certification or two to get a new job. Sometimes we have someone in that circumstance whose [problem] isn’t credentials, it’s how they’re looking for work and they haven’t been looking for work for 20 years and the way that happens is totally different than it was 20 years, 10 years, five years ago.”
In Ms. Cooley’s decision-making process, she considered graduate school, getting additional training in her first field, and a number of other industries before honing in on pharmacy tech. She knew she wanted something that didn’t tie her to a desk and would be in need of workers so her employment options would be expanded, not limited. To narrow it down from there, she talked to people in those fields, did job shadows, and researched professions she came into contact with at her current job, as the administrative program coordinator in the Division of Cognitive Neurology at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Her goal is to stay with the U, albeit in a different role.
“I’m just going to work part-time somewhere [while continuing to work full-time] and get enough experience and transfer at the U into a different setting. I’m really excited about it,” she says. “It’s been a juggling act—I have a really busy family and there are these logistics to figure out and I take public transit. I thought, I can study on the train and make this work out, and it has. It’s been a good choice, I think.”