I have a friend, Madison, who wants to transition from working in the private sector into the public sector, specifically the education sector. We’ve been talking about it a bunch as I had made that transition several years ago. In my case, I got lucky. I had completed my masters degree and the organization I went to work for needed someone with my specific skills and background. My friend, on the other hand, only has associates. This really shouldn’t matter as she has decades of experience and her skill set is very advanced for the jobs she was applying for. Also, as it’s well known, a bachelor’s degree is only good for three to five years before it becomes outdated, so even if she had gotten the BA back when she was in school, it’d have practically no meaning. One day she came to me crying. She had another friend, an insider to the schools she was applying for, tell her she was the top choice for several jobs but ultimately wasn’t the selected candidate because she didn’t have the degree. Holding an advanced degree as a job requirement is understandable when you consider the job was at an organization that exists for the sole purpose of conferring degrees on people. Still she was clearly the best person for the job and had to accept that she needed more education if she was going to qualify, even if the education she was getting would have a minimal positive impact, and was really be more of a ‘tax’. This was the first thing that got me thinking about our forever education plan.
Ironically, I’m sort of in the same boat as Madison. Indeed as I write this, I’m starting as a student in a new class, a programming class. I have a Masters in Information Technology, so in theory, and according to my college’s accreditation guidelines, I am qualified to teach programming. Realistically, I haven’t been to school to learn any coding since taking BASIC in high school. Without going too deeply into it, although related, Information Technology is a bit different from Computer Science. So, I’m qualified to teach on paper, but I don’t have the skills, so what did I do? I’m taking the class so I can teach it. I knew this was coming, the request to teach programming, so a while back I took on a self paced class with some evaluation instructional materials. Technically it’s very basic programming, but trying to figure anything out yourself, is challenging. I’m quite sure that over time, I could learn it by myself to the point where I could teach it, but I don’t have a great deal of time. So what’s the quickest way to get to the point where I could teach it? Take the class myself, hence, i’m in the programming class.
To Be honest, I’m not into programming. It can be a very fun and creative outlet, but it doesn’t click with me even though I’m known as a creative person. It’s simply not my kind of creativity. That being said, learning it is a very good idea for my career. It’s so good I don’t want to stop with just programming. I want to learn Linux, advanced virtualization, Cisco routing, etc. In a perfect world I’d get certifications in everything that my school teaches. I enjoy the general subject matter but I must admit I have an ulterior motive. My personal goal is to be able to teach everything offered in our program at the college. I like job security and being able to teach everything is a great way to position myself in case budgets get cut. The bottom line is that I’ll be doing this sort of training for years or until I’m not in this department anymore.
This goal of becoming the swiss army knife of the CIT department at a community college wasn’t always my path. It’s actually a left turn from my original plan to get an advanced degree related to education. The two paths are different in that learning the IT stuff is a deeper dive into what I’m currently doing. The EdD I had started was going to be a broad conceptual training for the job I wanted, which, at the time, was senior college management. To take it a step further, I’d actually like to do a combo of all the IT stuff, and an EdD which includes an MBA. Why do I desire this absolutely insane level of education? Well the MBA equates to more teaching opportunities for our Business Department. It’s teaching something I enjoy as much as IT. As I mentioned, the IT education benefits where I’m at, an EdD helps where I may wind up one day. Maybe. Right now I’m enjoying what I’m doing and taking it day by day.
As I said, my experiences, and Madisons, got me thinking about education that really is never ending. This conclusion isn’t at all surprising, at least not to me. When I was working in my workforce development job as a business outreach person I attended countless meetings and seminars. Many of these seminars repeated the same messages ad nauseum. The world, and the jobs in it, are changing faster and faster. The skills needed today are not the skills that will be needed tomorrow. Education must be lifelong. I will admit that seeing a thousand powerpoints about how we have to get the world in the ‘never ending skill development’ mindset doesn’t have nearly the impact as when you are living it.
So if education is a lifelong endeavor, i.e. it’s forever, at least as long as we are living, then how should we go about it? There are very different tactics for this journey. Broadly speaking, when I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that there is both formal and informal paths. Formal is what I’ve discussed so far, but I, along with many others, maybe even the majority of people, have informal education.
Informal education is what we used to describe as the time honored tradition of tinkering. I’m pretty sure it’s where my father’s extensive knowledge of cars came from. It’s where my software development background was initially developed when I was working with the evaluation curriculum. It’s also where I’ve learned to do some of my DJ work. When I got my mixing board, I started to fool around with the various options on the board. Only after several weeks did I break out the manual and read it. I still don’t know everything the board can do, but I’m much more knowledgeable. Informal education is also how I learned how to podcast, edit videos, and many other things. These days the twist on the informal education plan can be summed up in one word, or maybe with one brand: Youtube. Youtube has taken informal training to a new level where a would-be tinkerer could find videos explaining everything anyone could think of.
Informal isn’t just limited to Youtube. There is also informal training on the job. Often this ‘throw them in and see if they swim’ type of training is used by management when management assigns a person to a new job or initiative. It’s a tactic used when there are limited training resources or if the company is trying to get more value out of an employee. On the flip side, if you enjoy the challenge, this learning this can be fun. This is the way that Madison gained her voluminous knowledge over the years.
Formal training is my current job, it’s what I do every day for people. They go to school and get a certificate or a degree, or in the case of forever education, they go back and get another degree. This isn’t uncommon. Maybe it’s because I’m in academia, but I can’t count how many people I know who went back to school mid-career to get a masters degree. When I looked it up, I found that the average age for graduate students is 33 years old. This makes sense to me, in my experience that’s about the time when we want to go back and change or modify our careers. At that age, we’ve become seasoned enough in work and life to know what we like, and don’t like.
When you look at the two, formal and informal, you realize that informal education really has no pressure associated with it. It’s fun, it’s almost like a game and usually it’s free. Unfortunately, by not being formal, or structured, it takes longer and some of the info gained in informal education could be incomplete. Also, as Madison’s situation demonstrates, all the informal education in the world still won’t get you past formal education requirement roadblocks.
No matter if your forever education plan is formal, or if you tend towards informal, I think the biggest challenge of education isn’t actually getting it. That part is easy once you are on the journey. I think the biggest pitfall is when the new knowledge, skills, and abilities you are interested in get placed in the ‘someday’ file. My EdD is there and at the rate I’m going, it’ll never happen. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, it’s just that every year it goes further down the list of things I want to do. I’m always reminded of the line my brother used to use when it came to personal fitness. He would ask people “What is the hardest piece of equipment at the gym to use?” The answer to the question is “The front door”. I guess in my case, I realized that there are other doors in the strip mall and I’m going to check them out first.
I’m always trying to learn something but I’ll admit I’m unique. For most people the biggest question is: How do you move your forever education efforts from the ‘someday’ to ‘now’ column? I have no idea, but that’s the thing we all have to do. No matter if you want to grow in your job or grow in your life, in the end you have to have continuous education. Heck you need it if you just want to just maintain what you currently have. That’s the point of all the presentations on the future of our workforce that I watched in my business services days.
In the end you have to have a plan. The easy part of that plan is to decide if you want to continue your education by picking new things and learning informally, or spending the money and time for that formal education. The other part of the plan is really about the question of: how do you keep it up? It’s easy for me, I live to learn. I’ll never stop wanting to learn things and so I’ll always be engaged in some form of formal or informal education. It’s much harder for others. Madison doesn’t mind learning but she abhors the idea of spending her money and her time on what amounts to a useless degree. She knows how to do the job she’s trying to get better than most people who have it. She’s stalled out on her forever education. Consequently she can’t get where she wants to go. Very few people want to find themselves stuck with limited options in life.
I think I’ll end this one with a recommendation. If you have an idea or even an inkling of something you’d like to learn, then stop waiting. Go start it right now. Hit up YouTube, go register for a class, whatever it takes. After you take that first step, think about the ways you need to keep at it too. That’s just as important. I say this because your educational efforts need to go on forever, and forever always starts right now.