If you need a degree to compete with younger workers -- and you might not -- find the sweet spot in the market before you invest.
Older workers who’ve been downsized know the job market can be brutal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of November 2015, the average length of unemployment for 55- to 64-year-olds was 36.4 weeks. Compare that to the 22.2-week average for unemployed 20- to 24-year-olds.
Maybe you’re unemployed or underemployed and thinking a new degree is your golden ticket to a new job and a better salary. While a degree can make sense, here are five things you should keep in mind before heading back to school.
1. Not all degrees are created equal
Some people spend a lot of time and money on a degree that simply isn’t practical for their career goals.
Earning a bachelor’s degree in history will not result in the heavens parting, angels singing and a flood of job offers landing at your feet. Liberal arts degrees can be wonderful, but they are not necessarily the quickest way to get you on a fast-track career path.
If your goal is to get back in the workforce ASAP, look at careers and degrees that will quickly take you from paying tuition to receiving a paycheck.
2. Health care degrees often make sense
If you’re considering a new career field, health care programs might offer the fastest way to get out of school and into a job with a good salary.
Health care occupations are consistently in high demand, according to government and industry data. What’s more, many of these jobs require two years of schooling or fewer. Even with the minimal education requirements, some of these jobs pay more than jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees.
Of course, job availability varies from region to region, so be sure to check with your local community college to see what’s in demand in your area. Also, be aware that some positions can be physically demanding, which is another factor to consider before enrolling in a program.
3. The government might give you money for school
Depending on your circumstances, the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998 might help you get government money for your education. Under the act, dislocated workers can be eligible for support services and training through programs administered by each state.
Before you get too excited, know that money can be limited. In addition, you have to meet certain requirements to be eligible. For example, you might be eligible if you were laid off but not if you quit.
Contact your state’s workforce or employment agency for more information. While you’re at it, ask about other resources for older workers. Some states run their own programs or can refer you to appropriate community agencies.
4. Some colleges may offer you more flexibility
Competency-based education models are different from the traditional process of going to school for a semester to earn credits. Instead, colleges let you work at your own pace to master subjects. Once you prove you’re competent in the subject matter, you get the credit and the chance to move on.
This model can be a boon to older workers who have tons of experience but not a whole lot of time on their side. Rather than laboring for four years over a bachelor’s degree, you could conceivably shave off a year or two and get back into the workplace that much more quickly. Some schools may even let you bypass certain classes completely based upon your work experience.
5. Maybe you don’t need a degree at all
Finally, consider whether you really need to go back to school at all. Sometimes your work experience can trump anything you learn in a college program.
However, even if you don’t need a degree, you may still need to brush up on your skills. In particular, technology seems to trip up some older workers who aren’t as familiar with the latest programs. Taking a couple of community college courses can go a long way toward shoring up such skills.
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