“Every day we know less and less about more and more,” said Ray Caprio, vice president for continuing education at Rutgers University.
Raul Torres took a weeklong course in digital marketing at Rutgers, gaining crucial experience in Web analysis.
That, he said, goes far to explain why so many people, including engineers, teachers, bankers, museum workers and public relations aides, are concluding that they need to return to school, often years after receiving their bachelor’s degrees.
With the world growing ever more complex and new technologies being developed every day, it’s hardly surprising that millions of Americans have returned to campus. Some return to their alma maters or other colleges, some pursue continuing education at graduate schools and some turn to their local community college. Many experts say continuing education is more important than ever because most college graduates will go through five to seven job changes over their careers.
“To sustain themselves as competitive employees during their career, they’re probably going to need the equivalent of several more years of studying, although not necessarily in degree programs,” Mr. Caprio said.
To improve their workers’ skills, some employers provide in-house courses or underwrite elaborate executive education programs. But most workers are on their own when they want to take courses to increase their skills in the hope of climbing the career ladder.
David Gillbank lost his job at an advertising firm last summer. Unemployed, he debated what would give him a leg up in finding work. The path for him, he concluded, was in green marketing.
So he enrolled in a new program in global sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. It involved nine classes, including courses on renewable energy, principles of sustainability and green marketing. As part of the program, he worked with an elementary school in Hollywood to help it develop a program to conserve energy and follow other principles of sustainability.
“I really learned some skills to add to my résumé,” Mr. Gillbank said.
But that was not the only benefit. “It’s a good way to fill the gap in my résumé,” he added. “Everyone’s asking me, what have I done in my past year? Everyone appreciates that I’ve done something substantial with my time.”
Mr. Gillbank’s certificate in sustainability has helped him land interviews, he said, but he has not yet nailed down a job.
Some people have worked at a prosperous company for five years and are eager to move up, or are unemployed and eager to reinvent themselves. Still others are in an industry where successive waves of downsizing have made job security seem shaky. And more of them are concluding that if there is an answer to their problems, it’s more education.
At Rutgers, many ambitious 30- and 40-somethings are studying for mini-M.B.A.’s, taking condensed, intense business programs to quickly fortify themselves with new expertise and increase their chances of getting a promotion — and soon. At U.C.L.A., many who aspire to a career in Hollywood are taking courses in producing, screenwriting, television writing and music production. At Macomb Community College in Michigan, many former white-collar workers from Detroit’s automakers are plunging into health care courses and careers.
Anyone who has been out of college for five, 10 or 15 years and is thinking of returning to school has important questions to explore before jumping back in. Many colleges have counselors to advise would-be students, often helping on matters like whether to pursue a degree program like an M.B.A. or go for a certificate program, which sometimes requires four, six or eight courses and attests to attaining a specific expertise, like project management.
“I would go first to an institution that has these kinds of learner representatives to ask these questions, to do the drilling down that helps individuals sort out what is best for them,” said Mary Nichols, dean of the University of Minnesota’s college of continuing education.
Any good continuing education program, Dean Nichols said, takes an individualized approach to its students. “We’re not in the business of steering people toward things,” she said. “We’re in the business of helping people capitalize on their strengths and put together ways to build on their interests and passions.”
Cathy A. Sandeen, dean of continuing education at U.C.L.A., suggested, “Look at trends in your field. Look at your current skills and what do you need to augment your skills to make you more relevant and more attractive in your field.”