When you consider the fact that the average person will hold as many as 10 jobs before they turn 40, whether or not to pursue further education mid-life is hardly a question. Any new job is going to require new skills, some of which may be best learned in an academic environment, rather than in the field. So the question instead becomes one of what type of education will give you the most value for your time and money. A second bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree may open up new career paths in entirely different fields, but is it worth the cost and time commitment? You can always learn new things on your own, through MOOCs (massive open online courses), job shadowing and good old-fashioned research, but will your efforts pay off if you don’t have the credentials to show for it?
For many, the answer lies somewhere in between. Continuing education courses offer knowledge and skills in manageable pieces. You may not receive transferable credit for your efforts, but can walk away with a professional certificate and some evidence of your newfound knowledge, and because there is less of a time and money commitment involved, it’s a great way to pursue a subject for personal interest as well.
“Continuing education serves communities of learners as they work to achieve their professional and personal goals throughout their lives,” explains Christie Schultz, assistant dean of the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta. “Continuing education is flexible, accessible, and designed to meet the needs of working professionals looking to build knowledge, enhance skills, and advance their careers.”
Continuing Education 101
Continuing education courses are non-credit education programs that are typically taken through a college or a faculty of extension at a university. The term “continuing education” is a broad umbrella though, and can also include MOOCs, seminars and webinars, or informal training from a variety of sources.
As jobs naturally evolve to accommodate new practices, technologies and social expectations, continuing education can be the difference between becoming irrelevant in your own field and staying ahead.
“Many of our courses and programs are ‘bite-sized’ so that students can learn specific skills as needs emerge in their workplaces,” says Schultz. “Some programs, like the Occupational Health and Safety program or the Information Access and Protection of Privacy program, are closely aligned with professional associations, which may help to facilitate a career change. In contrast, courses in our Environmental Resource Management program or in our Management and Leadership programs, are often a perfect fit for those wishing to move up the career ladder within their current field.”
For some, the desire to learn more ends up sparking a bigger-than-expected life change. Taking a course on a subject that has always interested you can provide the knowledge and confidence to incite a complete career shift, or take you to a new level in an existing career. When you do decide to make a career shift, even if you didn’t begin the process by taking a class or studying a new topic, you’re still in for an education.
Janel Dickin made about as big a career change as one could imagine. Though she had years of retail experience, having worked in the industry as a side-job for years, the now-owner of Hye Fashion, a clothing boutique catering to tall women, originally had a very different career field in mind. “I hold a Master of Science degree in molecular genetics from the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan,” she says “Not exactly a direct path to owning a boutique!”
Even with 20 years of retail experience behind her, the jump to business owner required education in areas that were new to her. When she decided to make the move into fashion entrepreneurship, she eschewed the classroom model of continuing education, opting for direct the mentorship of people and organizations who held the expertise she needed. According to Dickin, those interactions paid off. “For about a year. . . I worked on the business plan in partnership with Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan, as I lived in Saskatchewan at the time,” she says. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I am wholeheartedly convinced that I am where I am supposed to be because I’ve encountered the right people with the right skills at just the right time to get me where I am. I’ve been so fortunate to have come across experts in a variety of fields—accountants, bankers, commercial realtors, business mentors, HR specialists, fashion trend experts, supervisors, colleagues, clients and good friends—who had insightful information that helped me build the business. I still use what I learned from them on a daily basis.”
Though Dickin’s career change might have seemed like a complete turnabout from her original path in molecular genetics, those years of working retail as a hobby may have been key in the transition. Drawing on existing skills can make a career change manageable, as the older a person gets, the harder it becomes to justify setting aside 5-10 years to take a new degree program, and work your way through the entry level ranks of a new field.
According to Cindy Hanson of the Edmonton Lifelong Learners Associations (ELLA), an organization that provides continuing education opportunities to adults over 50, career changes are often most successful when they make use of an existing skill set. “Older adults who successfully transition to a new career usually do so by making use of, and perhaps upgrading and updating, skills and knowledge they already have, rather than trying to learn completely new skills,” she says.
Continuing Education after Retirement
Due to the flexibility of most continuing education programs, they appeal to a broad spectrum of learners, including those who have already retired. Whether they’re looking to a begin a post-retirement career or simply pursue interests that had been put on the back burner during primary working years, retirees have become a growing demographic in continuing education classrooms.
“Our programs can also provide opportunities for a career shift—even a retirement career. Our residential interiors program, for instance, has certainly attracted students looking to start a creative business. Visual arts and writing courses can also be a great place to connect and learn in a community—and to pick up that paintbrush and that pen again, or for the first time,” says Schultz.
Post-retirement learning isn’t just about beginning a new career. According to Hanson, the classes offered through her organization benefit learners in a number of areas of their lives. “ELLA participants attend for a variety of reasons: to keep current and up to date; to meet new people, reconnect with old friends and spend time with an existing social circle in an interesting setting; to enjoy stimulating conversation with likeminded individuals; to stay engaged in society; and to challenge our minds and bodies,” she explains. “The reasons to attend are endless, but the outcomes are so valuable that participants return year after year. We have exceptionally high return rates and an extremely engaged membership.”
According to Hanson, it’s not just students who find the continuing education experience enriching. Those benefits are passed on to the people around them, including instructors. “I spoke to an instructor at last year’s session who told me that he was a bit hesitant to agree to teach at ELLA the first time he was asked, but that after teaching one spring session he was hooked!” she says. “He enjoys people’s eagerness to learn, the questions asked—some of which may challenge some of his concepts and some of which he has to research the answers to—and the engagement, maturity and experience of the students.”