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Will More School Lead to a Better Job?

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Laying Down The Law., Digital ID 809653, New York Public LibraryMost of my teachers in elementary school could remember the "good old days" when corporal punishment was acceptable in the public school system, so it's not surprising that they were kind of harsh when it came to feedback on lackluster performance.  If one of them called on me as I was drifting into an afternoon nap, my puzzled expression was often met with, "You had better start practicing how you're going to say, 'Would you like fries with that?' because you won't make it to college sleeping through class."

Actually, I think the strategic napping may have been how I sustained interest in school long enough to make it through college, and eventually, graduate school, but I'm sure there is room for debate on that topic.

What puzzled me when I first graduated from college was that employers didn't start breaking down my door with offers that came with nice offices, a salary of $50,000/yr, a company car and fringe benefits.  I spent my first post-graduation summer as an assistant manager to two men who had barely finished high school and moved-up to a $27,000/yr purchasing position that I could have handled in fifth grade.  In fact, I probably would have been better at it then.  At least data  entry and filing seemed sort of glamorous to me as a fifth grader.

Since graduate school, I can apply for a wider range of jobs that pay a decent salary, and periods between positions have gone from brief to nonexistent.  So, in that sense, I am already noticing some benefit, but I still buy the cheapest anything I can find, and I don't see a solid gold sink in my future.  In other words: even with most graduate degrees, the jobs don't pay all that well; not at first. Rumor has it that eventually, hitting the books does pay off.

According to a special study released by the US Census on educational  
attainment and earnings in 2002
, earnings tend to increase with level of education.  They also found  that being male is helpful, but claim that even that gap narrows at higher educational levels.

The Bureau of Labor Stastics' 'Occupational Outlook Handbook'The Bureau of Labor Stastics' 'Occupational Outlook Handbook'Given all this, it seems like the best response to a rotten economy is to go back to school and get retrained for a field that's actually growing.  A lot of people think they need to see a career counselor to identify a growing field and an educational program, but it's easy to do on your own.  Just review the information on growing occupations from the Occupational Outlook Handbook  or O*NET Online and start searching for programs on a site like Peterson's

Like most things that are easy to do, this isn't always the best thing to do.  I don't want to discourage anyone who is interested in ongoing learning from pursuing higher education, and I am not going to say you should totally ignore projections.  However, it's important to remember that when you identify growing occupations and possible programs, you're only looking at a small part of the big picture.

The economic landscape varies significantly from state-to-state, city-to-city, town-to-town, etc.  Resources like The Occupational Outlook Handbook provide projections for national trends. Just because economists anticipate a growing need for paralegals in the United States does not mean that the demand for paralegals in Mammoth, CA is going to be the same as it is in New York City.  The same holds true for compensation.  Also, these projections of general trends don't tell prospective job seekers anything about the amount of experience employers typically will look for in candidates in these high growth occupations.  Just because an occupation is listed as in demand doesn't mean that employers will be so desperate to fill those positions they will take anyone with the right paper credentials and a pulse.  I've wished it were true many times, but sadly, it's not.

The most important piece of information you need to make any career-related decision is whether or not you would enjoy the work and be good at it.  Just about every hospital in the country needs nurses, but if you have a fear of blood and hate working with people, it is pretty unlikely you will make it through the clinical portion of nursing training let alone land and keep a job as one.

Before you decide to take the plunge and go back to school, do your homework:

  • Research the local market where you plan to work.  If you are relocating, visit eNYPL and check-out Cities Ranked and Rated by Bert Sperling to find out who the top employers are as well as the major industries where you plan to live.  If you are planning to stay close to home, take a look at the current job postings to get an idea of what's available and what employers are looking for in terms of both education and experience.
  • Find out more about the credentials you actually need to pursue the career you are considering.  Most of the training information in the Occupational Outlook Handbook is very general.  Try visiting the websites of professional associations for the occupations you are interested in.  You can find relevant associations listed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, Career Cruising, and Ferguson's Career Guidance Center.
  • Learn more about what you're getting into if you're seriously considering retraining.  Is training actually available near you?  If not, can you go to it?  Can you afford the training without going into enormous debt? Estimate student loan payments using the calculator on Mapping Your Future
  • Ask yourself if you would be better off updating skills in your current occupation than pursuing something completely different.  Meeting with a Career Coach at the Science, Industry and Business Library's Job Search Central can help you identify your transferable skills and weigh your options for retraining.  Depending on what you're looking for, the coach might even be able to refer you to agencies you haven't even thought of for retraining assistance.  Book an appointment online here.

In a competitive market, higher education will pay off in the long-run, but it's important to consider whether or not you are in a position to make a substantial long-term investment.  A BA or MA might help you build a healthy retirment fund and a nice nest egg several years post-graduation, but it's not going to make paying next month's rent any easier.

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