Within the next few weeks, our new book Elements of Successful Organizations will be available for order on Amazon. This anthology follows the book we published last year, Creating the Workforce – and Results – You Seek. In this sequel, we continue the conversation.
I’ll fill you in more about the contents of the book when it’s available for order. In the meantime, please enjoy this advance peek at a chapter written by our board member Mark Milliron. While most of this book is directed at people managers, this chapter is intended for anyone who is pursuing education as a means to advance his or her success in the workplace.
Success Strategies for Working Students: The ‘Learn and Earn’ Baker’s Dozen
If you’re striving for better life by pursuing a postsecondary certification, diploma, or degree and have to work while doing so, don’t dismay. You are the “new normal” student in higher education. Traditional students—18–22 years of age, living on campus, going to school full-time—are still around, of course. But they represent less than a quarter of today’s higher education students. As a result, the days of the ivory tower and elite liberal arts universities dominating the American higher education conversation are in the past. Students ‘learning while earning’ are speaking up; and a wide variety of national, state, and educational leaders are listening and responding. It’s about time.
There is much work to do to help our government agencies, state economic development systems, postsecondary institutions, and employers better target their efforts to day-to-day, working-student realities. Thankfully, these conversations are underway. Indeed, organizations such as Corporate Voices for Working Families are catalyzing these conversations nationwide. However, these dialogs are not the focus of this piece.
The goal here is to speak directly to strivers on ‘learn and earn’ pathways and share key success strategies for their journey. If you’re a ‘learn and earn’ striver—or want to learn how to better support those who are—read on. Each of the baker’s dozen success strategies that follow are based on research, practice, and the experiences of millions of people taking on the challenge of learning and earning. More important, these strategies are especially targeted to not only help you advance on the journey, but to achieve meaningful postsecondary credentials along the way. It’s clear: quality credentials open up pathways to possibility like never before. Let’s get started.
Get on Purpose
The greatest gift and strongest lift you can give yourself on your journey is clarity. You have to get clear about “why” you’re embarking on this journey. You’ll soon find that coursework can be confusing, teachers unreasonable, employers inflexible, and life at home uncooperative. It’s times like these when an anchored “why” will save you.
What’s your “why?” Is it to break the cycle of poverty in your family? Is it to be an example to your children? Is it to provide a better life for your family? Is it to qualify for a promotion or get on the path toward a goal you’ve dreamed of for years but deferred to raise kids or support an extended family? Perhaps it is to just change the trajectory of your life. Regardless of what it is, it needs to be authentic, compelling, and worth pulling yourself out of bed when you’re absolutely exhausted.
For some of you, the “why” is clear and catalytic. For others, there is work to be done to get beyond nebulous notions of “because it seems like the right thing to do” or “my family thinks I should.” A strong, grounded purpose that you understand and own is radically important to both start well and finish strongly. Your choice of credential pathways, educational provider, employer and support systems all anchor on your why. Take the time to get as clear as possible about your purpose.
As said, the ‘learning and earning’ journey is not easy. The students that survive and thrive share some common characteristics. One of the most prominent is tenacity. They are tough. They take personal responsibility for the journey and don’t blame others for success or failure. It’s on them. They don’t “get” a grade; they “earn” a grade.
This tenacity is firmly grounded in a growth mindset. Research shows that learners who see their intellectual capacity as fixed—“I’m smart” or “I’m not that smart”—tend to have problems. When evidence contradicts their fixed perception of themselves, they often engage in self sabotage or self handicapping. Subtly they create ready-made excuses for failure. Call yourself early and often on this behavior if you see even the smallest sign of it seeping into your self-talk or daily walk.
On the other hand, learners who see themselves as growing or developing—“I can learn this if I work hard”—fare much better. They see setbacks as learning opportunities and triggers to turn on more effort, not signals of self worth and excuses to quit. These hardy folks have neuroscience on their side. Research backs up the notion that your brain’s capacity grows and expands with your effort. Put simply, we were literally born to learn.
If you’re serious about this journey, buckle up. You’ll find friends and allies to be sure. But in your working, learning, and living worlds you’ll come upon stumbling blocks, sticking points, and seriously challenging people who don’t have your best interest at heart. You need to bring a sense of toughness to the mix if you’re going to succeed. It won’t be easy. But finishing something hard is a powerful change experience and habit former.
Get Smart about Your Employer
Not all employers are created equal. Some take the development of their employees seriously and offer internal training and external tuition support. Others are good about providing flex time for working learners and apprenticeships to give them needed experience. There are some, however, that could care less about your personal development. In fact, you might have experienced firsthand employers that are openly dismissive of your dreams and eager to reinforce the “you’re not good enough” mindset. Run from this last group, if you have the choice.
If you’re lucky enough to already work for or have the opportunity to choose an employer that has robust professional development opportunities, try hard to maximize them. Look for training opportunities that offer higher-education credit toward credentials if you can. Many have strong partnerships with surrounding community colleges or universities that might be of interest as well. Also, take the time to understand and leverage the tuition reimbursements your employer offers. And, most important, tell your employer of your interest in furthering your development by obtaining higher education credentials. Smart employers know that if you’re working toward a certification or degree, even if it doesn’t benefit them directly, you’re likely to stay longer and be a more conscientious employee. Others will be impressed by your aspiration and may want to seed your development to launch you on a career path that benefits both you and them.
If you’re trapped in a relationship with an employer that is not supportive, however, it’s time to bring your tenacity to bear. I hate to be this direct, but it’s important. You have to be clear that you’re using this job to give you the opportunity to be a learner, a striver on a different path. Identify yourself as a student first and employee second. Keep working hard at your job; but leverage all the options you can—on ground, online, blended learning opportunities through training providers, community colleges, or universities—to keep moving forward on the learning journey toward a credential. You’ll soon find that good colleges (see the next section) help working students work around difficult employers.
Get Smart about Your College
Some training providers, community colleges, and universities are particularly good about understanding the challenges of working students. They have flexible learning options: online, blended, and weekend offerings. Some even offer classes starting at midnight! Strong local colleges will have partnerships with many of their region’s major employers that have significant benefits for working learners. Best of all, more colleges are giving credit for documented training activities or providing access to competency testing to accumulate credit for knowledge and skills you already possess. There is no need to sit through classes on topics you already know inside and out. Try hard to find these colleges. Sometimes they’re right next door. Other times they are online and can reach you anywhere, any time.
A few key considerations, however: First, make sure any institution you attend is accredited by a reputable regional or national accreditor and that the credential you’re working toward—and you absolutely should be working toward a credential (more on that later)—builds toward future learning pathways. Beware unaccredited institutions or those trying hard to convince you to maximize your student loan availability. There are too many other good options available. Take the time to be choosey and strategic—do not jump at the first advertisement or recruitment call.
Second, do not assume that online learning is easier or right for you. Many students quickly find that neither is the case. Quality online learning is challenging and requires a level of technical savvy and self regulation that is difficult for some working learners. Many have found that starting and/or staying with blended programs is the answer. It affords the best of online learning’s flexibility with face-to-face’s personal touch.
Finally, beware the rigid or “elite” college or university that demonstrates little care or concern for working students. These institutions are not hard to spot. Usually their disdain for your life situation is palpable and their student mix is clearly not a fit. With the array of learning options available for today’s working learner, it’s best not to try to force a fit with these folks, no matter how great their name may sound on a diploma.
Get the Most for Your Money
Believe it or not, millions of students leave money for education on the table. There is what’s called a “Pell Gap” at many community colleges and universities—the difference between the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants and those that access them. Also, many students are unaware of workforce training grants available through local labor departments or community centers. Still others fail to access tuition reimbursement or other ‘learn and earn’ programs offered by their employers.
Don’t stop looking for support. Make sure you fill out the FAFSA. This federal aid form is the coin of the realm in education financial support. It can be painful to try to complete on your own, however; so don’t be shy about asking for assistance either from a local college’s student support services or a community workforce development center. Also, be sure to ask about scholarship opportunities and any and all other support offerings—including work study or apprenticeship programs.
Do, however, be very careful about student loans. Student loan debt stays with you forever. It’s one of the few debts that you can’t declare bankruptcy against. Take on no or as little student loan debt as possible, and only consider it after every other option has been exhausted. Too many students turn to loans first because lenders—or sometimes unscrupulous recruiters—make them far too easy to obtain.
Get Going on the Plan—Full-Time if Possible
You can be on purpose, tenacious, well supported by your employer and college, and well grounded financially and still not reach your learning journey’s destination: a credential that improves your life and life choices. To reach this goal, you need a plan. Sitting down and mapping out the full journey toward a credential over a set number of months and years is vital. There are usually good college supports and/or employer resources to tap to help you with this mapping process. Regardless, map you must. You have to be able to see the finish line, or else running seems pointless.
Many working students have neither a clear purpose nor a coherent plan. They are dabblers. A class here, a class there, while working too much and studying too little. Unfortunately the research is clear: dabblers rarely get credentials that count. Too many of them end up with debt and little to show for the stress of their dabbling. Don’t do this to yourself.
While it may be difficult, see if there is any way you can attend full-time or as close to full-time as possible. Challenge yourself on this one. It means getting the right financial support, life support, and employer support to make it work. And I fully understand how difficult it might be. However, the more you can orient yourself toward the new reality that you’re a serious learner and that this will be a serious effort the better. If you have to go part time, you should be radically clear on the path—no matter how long it might take.
Get Through Developmental Education—Quickly
Many returning students find themselves in what is called remedial education, developmental education, or academic foundations. Whatever the name, it’s typically pre-collegiate work. Based on “placement tests” you can often be relegated to years of these courses, costing you precious time and money. More important, research shows that the longer you are in these programs, the less likely you are to ever complete a credential.
The clock is ticking. Take advantage of whatever acceleration options are available through programs or services at progressive colleges or training centers. Some colleges and universities offer integrated developmental education and program classes—sometimes called learning communities. Others offer learning labs or self-paced offerings that help you progress more quickly. Use them whenever possible.
Make no mistake: you need the core academic skills of writing, reading, and math to succeed in college. They are essential. However, increasingly there are other pathways to obtain these skills than slogging through 1–2 years of courses. Be persistent about looking for other options; but even more persistent about obtaining these core skills.
Get Help—Early and Often
One of the most universal findings of student success studies is this simple fact: successful students ask for help. Your instinct to go it alone or your embarrassment at not being in the know can destroy your dreams. Suck it up and ask for help—early and often.
Both employers and colleges have support services that you should maximize. Good teachers are eager to answer your questions. Fellow students often have keen insights—particularly ones that are just ahead of you in your program of study.
Some of the biggest areas to ask for help on early include financial challenges, childcare, work/life balance, and class/work scheduling. Too many students “self-advise” on these issues, and all-too-often make catastrophic choices. Please know that others have traveled this path before. It’s OK to ask directions!
One of the more powerful strategies in this mix is to expand your peer and mentor network. As you begin your learn and earn journey, reach out to other working students—either in your workplace or at school—and begin building new relationships. Surrounding yourself with fellow strivers is vital to keep you going in the hard times and lift you higher when things go well. You need people in your life that understand your aspirations, can commiserate about the challenges, and are ready to celebrate the successes. Nothing will be lonelier for you than getting an “A” on a big test or project and having no one who really understands what a milestone this event is for you. Don’t do this to yourself. Start reaching out to build a peer network as soon as possible.
Moreover, you should take the risk to reach out to possible mentors. Mentors are those ahead of you on the path—they either already have the kind of job you want or are more advanced as a student. Believe it or not, most people enjoy serving as mentors—they are often deeply honored that you consider them in this light. Simple questions like “what advice would you give to someone at my stage” will open up insights and possible friendships you never imagined.
Again, research is clear and compelling on these issues: students with deeper peer and mentor relationships on their learning journeys are more likely to be successful. It’s not rocket science as to why—early insights to big stumbling blocks, preparation strategies, and supportive relationships. Take the time to make these connections now, and be sure to give back later down the road, too. Helping those that follow you is the positive price you pay for the help you’ll be getting throughout your learning journey.
Many working learners have the advantage of already having relevant job experience. What they need is the credential to advance. Others, however, are working in sustenance jobs that have nothing to do with their career path—e.g., they’re working as a waiter while they work on a nursing degree. While the former should be striving to round out their experiences with new learning opportunities, it is the latter group that is more challenged.
There are no easy answers on this one. You’ll sometimes have to upend your life to create the opportunity to do some kind of internship. Other times you’ll have to ask a mentor to involve you in projects or activities.
Strong ‘learn and earn’ programs available in many colleges make gaining experience central to the educational process. Seek these programs out if possible. If not, you’ll need to get creative. Regardless, those who have gone before you make it clear: if there is a chance to get experience related to your career track—move heaven and earth to take advantage of it.
Online learning, blended learning, social networks, and more: these are all a part of the modern educational infrastructure. More workforce training and college credential programs have strong technology components. For many, technology is the core delivery system.
A few thoughts on getting tech. First, teachers still matter—big time. A good or bad teacher, whether online or face-to-face, can make all the difference. Care more about that variable than the technology. In fact search out good teachers, scout them, and soak up the best learning from the best faculty members, regardless of the modality in which they deliver instruction.
Second, as said, online is not easy. Please don’t assume that it is. It may be radically more convenient; but well constructed online learning is just as challenging, if not more so, than in-class offerings. Students in quality online courses report having greater interaction with faculty members and peers and being required to do more to document their learning. Do, however, leverage online options to make your schedule work. As a working learner, these online and blended options are often the difference between part-time or full-time students. They have been a godsend to many because of this flexibility alone.
Finally, leverage social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, or college specific systems to build the peer and mentor relationships we talked about. You’re likely not living on campus or going to student events which form the backbone of campus social networks. Online social networks can help you build and leverage your own version of the campus social network, regardless of how busy you are.
Get Smart about Your Learning
All the technology buzz aside, core liberal arts learning still matters. What employers tell us is that they still need employees who are particularly strong in four key learning areas:
1. Critical Learning: critical thinking, problem solving, decision making
2. Creative Learning: original thought, design development and appreciation, innovation
3. Social Learning: ability to communicate, work in teams, provide leadership
4. Courageous Learning: ability and willingness to learn new things
The first two are standard and consistent general education outcomes. EVERY major survey of desired ‘21st century skills’ cites critical and creative learning as vital. Do whatever you can to flex your critical and creative learning muscles during your learning journey. It will be worth the work.
Social learning, however, has become even more primary. With the complex, tech-enabled social environment in which we live, we now need learners who know how to use smart phones, texting, email, social networks, and video conferencing. Moreover, they need to know when to turn all these tools off and spend “face time” with peers and employees to build and maintain relationships. And lest you think these are “soft skills,” remember studies show that most people get their first job through social connections and that most people are fired—outside of economic downturn—because of interpersonal conflict. Social learning matters.
Courageous learning, however, may matter most. You’ll soon realize that even after obtaining quality credentials, your learning and earning journey is likely not over. Your ability and willingness to continue learning may be the most powerful learning skill of all. My favorite quote on this topic comes from Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher from the early 20th century. He said it simply: “It is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
Get Finished—With Credentials
Starting is not the problem. More and more working learners start higher education every day. But here is a little known fact: most working learners never attain a credential with labor market value. A majority never finish what they start. We can recite the laundry list of reasons why; but that’s not the point of this piece. What we want to focus on is what we know about those who finish well—with a credential in hand.
If you want to make the most of your learning and earning adventure, commit right now to finishing. Determine the next credential step that makes sense for you—an apprenticeship, industry certification, AA, BA, BS, MBA, etc.—and commit to documenting that on your resume by a certain date. Choose wisely, because not all credentials are created equal. However, by and large, research shows a postsecondary credential opens up radically different life options for people in this country.
Once you’ve made this commitment, keep this baker’s dozen list close at hand. There are likely another dozen or so you’ll be able to add to this mix by the end of your journey. But your fellow travelers—along with a strong body of research and practice—point to these 13 strategies as essential to helping you succeed on the learning and earning pathway to possibility.
Best of luck on the journey—and stay in touch!