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In praise of lifelong learning

Misconceptions surrounding part-time and continuing education

By Brian Kreissl

Because technology and business practices are changing all the time and business functions, vocations and even entire industries are being completely restructured, most workers these days will need to be committed to lifelong learning. Many individuals will be forced to retrain and radically reinvent themselves in preparation for new ways of doing things — and even entirely new careers in some cases.

Gone are the days when people could simply complete their education in their late teens or early 20s and basically never take another course for the rest of their lives. Today’s knowledge workers need to have a commitment to lifelong learning in order to adapt, grow and thrive.

Of course, lifelong learning can take lots of different forms. As well as formal education at a college or university, there are many ways to learn such as through corporate training programs, coaching, mentoring and by reading (and even writing) books, articles and online content. Most importantly, however, a great deal of learning in an organizational context actually takes place on the job.

The point is there are many ways to learn and demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning other than taking formal classes at a postsecondary institution. However, for the purposes of this post, I want to focus mainly on part-time continuing education courses and programs.

Having two degrees, four certificates and a professional designation (and currently finishing up a fifth certificate in leadership in organizations) I believe most people would recognize lifelong learning is something I personally believe very strongly in.

But having completed so many courses over the years, I can clearly see education isn’t the be-all and end-all for career success that some people make it out to be. There are also a lot of misconceptions among employers relating to part-time and continuing education.

Misconceptions surrounding continuing education

I remember talking to one colleague of mine at another company (a recruiter actually) more than 10 years ago about my education and career up to that point. She sneered at me and said, “Your problem is too much learning and not enough earning.”

While I might have agreed with her if I had been a perpetual full-time student with little paid work experience, all of my education other than my bachelor’s degree had been completed on a part-time basis while I was working full-time. And even when I was doing my undergraduate degree, I always had part-time and summer jobs.

I also remember one interview I had probably 12 or 13 years ago where the recruiter was reviewing my resumé with me. It surprised me how she assumed my education was completed full-time and my work experience was mostly part-time.

That was a real eye opener, but I guess the lesson here is that full-time education is generally assumed to be the default. I suppose that makes sense because relatively few people actually complete their education on a part-time basis.

The appeal of certificate programs

Juggling work, academic, household and family responsibilities is hard, and completing a program at night school or online can be extremely challenging for many people. Post-secondary institutions recognize this and offer many short certificate programs for working professionals.

If someone is only able to take two or three courses per year, completing an entire degree might take 20 years. Most people don’t have that kind of time — particularly when they’re making a career change.

But it really feels to me like many employers don’t give certificate programs the respect they deserve. It seems that unless an academic program leads to additional letters after one’s name, employers tend to discount it.

That’s a shame because in most cases completing six to ten courses in a specific discipline should be sufficient to demonstrate interest in the field and get a foot in the door. If someone already has a degree or diploma – even in a completely different field – the degree along with a certificate should be enough.

I have also seen situations where employers rejected people simply because they hadn’t finished their education. While that makes sense in the case of a full-time student, I’ve even seen it applied to someone who already had tons of education and was simply completing her latest certificate on a part-time basis.

That kind of attitude seems completely at odds with the concept of lifelong learning – especially where completion of the certificate isn’t mandatory. Learning should be viewed as a journey, not a destination.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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