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It’s normal for graduating college students to feel both exhilaration and anxiety, and that was before the pandemic.
Now, 4 million new graduates are entering perhaps the worst job market in a century, with unemployment numbers to rival the Great Depression. What’s more, thanks to the coronavirus, it isn’t so easy to pound the pavement and hand out resumes, go to jobs fairs, or collect business cards at networking events.
One thing newly minted college graduates can do to make the most of this unusual time is beef up their credentials, using short-term training programs to gain new skills that will, hopefully, help them in the job market. But as the number and type of these courses has grown, finding the ones that are truly worth your time and money can be as time-consuming as actually taking them.
One non-profit organization that has stepped in to help is Credential Engine, which seeks to become the Waze or Google Maps of educational qualifications. Its website offers real-time information about the route you want to take to your chosen career, and what new credentials you might need to get there.
“The kind of capability we need in education and training is what you have in driving directions or airline flights or buying a car,” says Scott Cheney, executive director of the organization. “And there is no particular portion of America’s education and training system that has done this well because they haven’t been expected to.”
There’s a wide variety of skills-training programs. You may be looking for a coding boot camp in hopes of working for a tech startup, or an English as a Second Language training program to prepare you to teach English abroad. There is one thing they all have in common, though.
“All these programs are last-mile training,” says Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures, which invests in higher education startups. “They kind of start where traditional higher ed leaves off.” There’s a hierarchy when it comes to such programs, and a number of ways to assess their value, says Craig, whose book A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College covers the topic.
The top tier are programs like apprenticeships, where companies pay for you to learn and guarantee a place with them afterwards, says Craig. Then, there are some startup schools that offer “income share agreements,” in which the companies don’t charge you upfront tuition, but you agree to reimburse them a percentage of your salary over a number of years.
The bottom tier, Craig says, is unfortunately the most prevalent one: courses that expect you to pay out of pocket, so you’ll have to shell out for a program with limited information about how useful it will be. With these, Craig cautions, “be careful; many programs will cite employment statistics on their website. If they don’t, that raises questions.”
Don’t just rely on employment statistics either, as companies can exaggerate those. Another way to assess whether a program actually leads to a job, says Christine Valenza Shin, is to contact alumni — not just those who took the program you’re looking at, but those who graduated from your college, too.
Shin is senior associate director of advising & programs for Beyond Barnard, the career development office of Barnard College. The office has a wide range of advising and services available, but Shin often tells her graduates to start with LinkedIn, since the online networking tool is useful for zeroing in on key people in an industry who can tell you what credentials you may need to follow in their footsteps. A shared alma mater (something you can also easily search for on LinkedIn) is a bonus, as you’ll have an automatic shared interest when you reach out to them.
In general, Shin cautions those looking for credentials to consider the return on investment. If you aren’t sure, she says, there are plenty of no-cost options, including YouTube tutorials, which can allow you to dip your toe into a new field, be it photography, coding, data analysis, or web design, before you put down serious money.
The paid skills-training market is certainly growing, though, and experts like Craig and Cheney think the pandemic will only spur it on. Last year a report from Credential Engine counted 738,000 credentials offered in the US alone, so having the skills to wade through them is essential.
“It’s a poorly understood sector,” says Cheney. “There’s a lot of myth-busting to be done.”
Where to Find Courses
A database of courses taught by experts from companies and universities. The platform offers quizzes and projects to practice your skills, collaboration with other learners, and both degrees and certificates. A recent New York Times article reports it added 10 million users over the first two months of the pandemic. Coursera may charge less than $100 for an individual course or as much as $25,000 for a full online degree.
Much like Coursera, these offer course databases of online courses like marketing, IT, and business, toward a number of degrees from universities across the country. EdX is a non-profit that offers many free courses, but will charge between $50 and $300 for courses that count toward verified certificates. Udacity offers many free courses, but charges several hundred dollars for what’s called a “nanodegree.” Instructors on Udemy price their own courses, but most are between $50 and $300.
Offers courses curated by experts in their field along with collaborative projects, and also pairs you up with a mentor in your future industry. Includes career track programs (they claim a “job guarantee”) and scholarships for veterans and women. Springboard has different pricing plans based on whether you pay upfront, monthly, or deferred.
One of the largest boot camps, it offers courses in coding, business, data, web development, and web design, along with mentorship and access to professionals and alumni. They operate both online and on campuses across the US. Current tuition is $15,950 for a full-time, multi-week course, but there is also an income share option.
A one-stop shop for finding boot camps (and other types of programs) and applying for loans, Skills Fund assesses school for you, and gives you a loan for both tuition and living expenses.
A non-profit with a database offering real-time information about job requirements, courses, and the market for your skills, so you look up the “route” to take to your chosen career, and what new credentials you might need to get there.
Unlike the others, this is a platform not for courses but for tutors. You can search by course, decide what you want to pay and enter a range, and then review tutor profiles to find the best teacher for you.
The well-known networking platform is a useful tool for finding alumni who operate in the fields you are interested in, as well as those who list credential programs you may be considering to get the job you want. There’s also video tutorials on software and business skills. LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda-.com) charges a monthly membership fee of $29.99, or $19.99 per month if you pay the annual cost upfront.
The video sharing platform has plenty of no-cost tutorials (paid for by ad revenue) on any subject you can imagine, from coding and web development to cooking and gardening. It allows you to assess whether to take your skills to the next level.