Course correction

Out of school and out of work? Don’t enroll in a grad program just yet — adult-education coures could do (and land you) the job.
By VANESSA CZARNECKI  |  October 14, 2009


So it unfolded on Facebook, the story of this down-on-his-luck recent graduate in possession of a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts from a respected area school. He had been released early from a temp job and was again searching for employment — any sort of “grown-up” office situation, no matter how tedious — to make ends meet.

In the days that followed, friends punctuated his updates with similar stories of discouragement, offering up their own diplomas for degradation and debating the merits of enrolling in grad or law school. By doing so, they recited lines from a debate taking place all over the country: one degree obviously isn’t enough to score a job these days. Should I try my luck with another?

For many of the 4.5 million unemployed college graduates ages 25 and older with few job prospects in sight, the answer appears to be “yes.” Enrollment in graduate schools nationwide increased by 4.7 percent from 2007 to 2008, the highest spike since 2002, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. (While statistics for the 2008–2009 academic year have not been released, many colleges have reported record numbers of applications.) This as the nation faces its 22nd month in a row of job losses, with an unemployment rate that last month edged past 9.8 percent.

The wisdom of returning students’ choices remains to be seen. But if the current state of affairs is any indication, those who are seeking to hide in hallowed halls without a career path in mind are taking on an expensive gamble.

A US Department of Labor (DOL) unemployment report issued earlier this month revealed the percentage of college alumni ages 25 and older seeking out-of-work benefits has skyrocketed since December 2007, surpassing that of high-school dropouts. And law firms are deferring employee start dates by as much as a year, prompting a number of recent graduates to turn to pro-bono work, or to take on shifts in restaurants, according to an October 6 article in the Wall Street Journal.

What’s a would-be student or worker to do?

Before junking your diploma, consider that a college degree still makes you more than twice as likely to be employed as those without one. Plus, even with an estimated 15 million Americans looking for work, according to a recent Associated Press (AP) report, employers continue to have difficulty filling high-paying jobs in in-demand fields, such as health care, accountancy, data analysis, biotechnology, and engineering.

Well-laid educations plans motivated by a desire for a career change or movement into a sector that requires a master’s or PhD should therefore not be laid to rest. But if it’s a leg-up in your existing field of study you’re after, professional-development or continuing-education courses may offer the focused training you need, and save you $100,000 on another generalized degree that could leave you still standing in the bread line.

If you’ve studied a non-vocational degree, the skills you bring to the table can be instrumental to getting hired — both in terms of demonstrating you’re focused enough for a specific career, and helping you to stand out in an overcrowded job market. Luckily, the metro Boston area is rich with institutions where, for relatively little money and time, you can carve out a niche of expertise, or familiarize yourself with technology essential to your field in a matter of days or weeks, without enrolling in a specified program.

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