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Make the Most of Your Unemployment

By Nina Silberstein, ClassesUSA

No one likes being out of work. But if you find yourself in this situation -- whether due to a layoff, a circumstances beyond your control or simply a lack of opportunities that compels you to resign and move on -- a short-term education program can give you the edge you need to get hired, promoted, or earn a better salary and job security the next time around.

According to the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Quarterly, in 2006, unemployed sales reps, for example, sought work for about eight weeks while administrative assistants were looking at about nine weeks in the ranks of the unemployed. In many cases, this is plenty of time to complete a certificate program in order to update your résumé with a new credential.

“There’s more [to additional schooling] than just the intellectual value of getting an education,” says John Younger, president, CEO and founder of Accolo Inc., a professional recruiting and outsourcing company located in Larkspur, Calif. “It sends out a signal that a person is invested in his or her growth.”

For those finding themselves in the unemployment line, such self-development and self-evolution can work wonders both personally and in how the professional world perceives them. “It’s a predictor that this is someone who will continue to develop emotionally and intellectually in an area of expertise,” Younger says. In short, someone employers would want to have on their team.


Employability case study: Paralegal certificate
For Deanie Heller, an emergency room and cardiac physician assistant for the past 20 years, it was time for a change. “Twenty years is a long time at a career and, no matter how exciting, every job becomes routine after awhile,” she says. Eager for mental and academic stimulation, and the opportunity to use her experience and knowledge in a completely different environment, Heller resigned to pursue a formal education. She chose the paralegal field because she says the hours would be much more manageable than those in health care, the potential for a good salary was there, and she could still work with people.

Since Heller couldn’t afford to be out of work for too long, however, she opted for a full-time, four-month paralegal certificate program, rather than the yearlong part-time program that was also offered. She’s confident her studies will propel her into a new career quickly and doesn’t anticipate difficulty finding employment.

According to Meryl Friedman, a member of the faculty at Villanova University’s American Bar Association-approved post-baccalaureate paralegal-education program, completion of the paralegal certificate is often what bolsters a graduate's chance of breaking into this booming career path regardless of prior job experience in other sectors. In fact, she says, within the last couple of years, the school has seen graduates from a variety of disciplines, including a former emergency-room nurse (burned out), an experienced Philadelphia Inquirer reporter (paper sold and ranks purged), a federal employee (looking for a supervisory job in his agency) and a biochemist (retired after 20 years with DuPont).


Motivated to learn
When Aaron Bolshaw’s employer, Omaha Creative Group (Omaha Steaks’ in-house advertising agency), downsized and restructured in January 2007, he was let go. He viewed the time off as an opportunity to load up on classes and finish his master's degree in business administration while staying in Nebraska and supporting himself for the first few months on the cushion his severance pay provided. “Depending on how fast you go, you can take a couple of classes, go through the summer and get [the degree] in one and a half to two years,” he says.

But finding that next job took only three months. Although he’s still plugging away at that M.B.A., Bolshaw is now employed in a marketing position at Mutual of Omaha, a Nebraska-based insurance, financial and investment firm. He has four classes left and plans to graduate next year.

He attributes working towards the M.B.A. with making a good first impression on the hiring manager. “My commitment to finish the program was also a strong point,” Bolshaw says. “I was bringing more value to their organization and they realized that.” Heading back to school has meant a step up in ranks and pay for Bolshaw.

Like most people who are laid off, Bolshaw expected the worst, which for him was the prospect of being out of work for at least a year. “When I was facing that, I thought, why not hedge my bet? Why not get the M.B.A. in my back pocket?" he says. "I think it’s still a key to many doors in the future.”


Mending a broken career
Lamont Lewis started working for United Parcel Service part time while attending the University of New Orleans, but after some time, he left school to work full time. “The pay was good and the benefits were excellent, yet the work was hard. After about 10 years, I realized that there weren’t any long-term [opportunities] with UPS for me,” he says.

The self-taught computer buff decided to take his computer interest to the next level by pursuing computer studies at Tulane University. A few classes into the program, however, he sustained a back injury requiring surgery and recuperation that put him out of work for nearly 18 months.

"In some ways, this time off from work was helpful by allowing me free time to further my training and schooling," Lamont says, that is, once he was physically capable of continuing with school.

Lewis completed his associate of science degree in computer information systems in August 2004, and continued toward completing a bachelor's degree, when he was hired as a computer systems administrator for the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the eastern district of Louisiana.


A measurable difference
Paul Forbes, the program director of Tulane University’s continuing studies division, says most students enrolled in programs like his are working adults with some college education, who are returning to finish a degree. They often take additional coursework in a special area to advance their careers or to shift and retool to a different industry after losing their jobs. "We've found, for our students, that this is an opportunity to reassess career goals, get on track and find a new position," Forbes says. "Many [job seekers] have turned a termination into a positive experience."

A forced departure from a job often opens paths to new, more satisfying and better-paying careers that wouldn't have been considered under other circumstances, Younger adds. "Different skill sets make you more marketable. Realize that [unemployment] can work to your advantage."

Forbes thinks that the additional education is like a union card for entrance into a number of industries, thus making it easier to advance within. Heller agrees: “Work history is a strong plus in the job market, but formal training in advance saves the potential employer the task.” And for these professionals who put a positive spin on a potentially tough situation, being unemployed turned out to be the best thing that happened to their careers.


 

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