Back to Work 2011

Time to Retool at School?

Jessica Rao,|Special to

No one wants to think of oneself as past their expiration date, but in today’s labor market many jobs and businesses are becoming obsolete due to technology.

The slow-to-recover economy is not helping matters, and the fact is your skills may not be as sought after as they once were. Sound familiar?

School could be the answer. Here’s how to know when it’s time to hit the books, and which careers make sense.

Jamie Grill | Iconica | Getty Images

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the three industries that will see the fastest rate of jobs growth through 2018 are health care; professional, scientific, and technical services, and education. But just because that’s where the action is doesn’t mean that you should force yourself into a round hole if you are a square peg.

“Choosing a career based on what's "hot" right now is one of the biggest myths of career planning,” says Dawn Rosenberg McKay of Guide to Career Planning at “The career has to be suitable for the individual, while also having a promising future.”

With any career change, it is important to take a long hard look at your capabilities and research the situation.

“The homework is critical to answering whether or not school is appropriate,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of "The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide."

You have to figure out whether or not a career change is a big or small one. If it’s small, continues Cohen, it may be that rethinking what you bring to the table and subsequently repackaging and repositioning how you present yourself is sufficient.

Certainly, a less drastic change would be easier to accomplish. If you’ve been in IT, for example, and your skills are no longer relevant, a course or a certificate in an area of technology that is valuable now may be all that it takes.

If, on the other hand, you are going into the pause as an opportunity to reinvent, that’s another story.

“If there is virtually no relationship between what you’ve done before and what you want to do next, say you’ve been a banker and you want to be a baker, then going back to school is critical because you need to learn the basics so you can begin to be out in the world in this new capacity,” says Cohen.

John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement company in Chicago, cautions that starting over is risky and a lot easier to do in the early part of your career.

“If you go back to the beginning, to a new field, you’ll be entry level in terms of money and your place within the organization.”

Be aware: Even if you get the education, it does not translate into real-world experience.

Another glaring factor is that graduate programs are expensive.

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According to theNational Center for Educational Statistics, in 2007–2008, the average total price (tuition and fees, books and materials, and living expenses) for one year of full-time graduate education was $37,300 for a master's degree program, up from $31,700 in 2003–2004.

It’s not only the outright cost of the degree, adds Cohen, it’s the cost of being back in school and losing the income that you could be earning.

You have to measure whether or not the investment that you are making in terms of the program is going to have return.

Again, research, like finding out how recent graduates of the program are doing, is key. In a section of her book called Careers A to Z on, McKay offers median salaries for many occupations and details about where to go for more information.

Helping Hands

On a positive note, if you have been displaced or been part of a downsizing, you may be eligible for retraining programs through your state’s Department of Labor. Cohen points out that many states are affiliated with educational institutions so that people can back to school,  sometimes in rigorous programs.

In New York State, for example, the 599 Program allows unemployment recipients to continue to receive benefits while attending a training program, as long it has been approved by the Department of Labor. If your training has been approved, you’ll be excused from having to look for work and may be eligible for additional weeks of unemployment, according to the state’s website.

There are other ways to control the costs of graduate school. One obvious way is to choose a state school rather than a private university.

For some areas of study, financial assistance, in the form of grants or fellowships, are common, says McKay. In other areas you’ll always pay your own way, unless you can get financial aid based on need from the school or the government.

Don’t worry if graduate school is not your thing. Fresh starts can be achieved in other ways such as taking a class in entrepreneurship and developing a business plan, says Challenger. “Maybe you leave a company and you get a nest egg, so you go buy a franchise of something or you start a business,” he says.

At the end of the day, don’t forget: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.