Investing in yourself

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

When Stacey Cabral enrolled in a series of Six Sigma project management courses at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Corporate Education, she wasn’t trying to impress her boss or get on the fast track for promotion. Laid off last October by computer chip manufacturer Qimonda, the process engineer was looking for an edge in a tough job market.

Cabral, 34, wanted to get out of manufacturing and into another industry. She took executive education courses that would give her a Black Belt certification in Six Sigma, a management strategy aimed at improving production quality. “A lot of the process improvements that businesses are trying to do really involves a lot of what I was already doing as a process engineer, but that community doesn’t necessarily make that connection,” she says. “They know it as Six Sigma, and it helps if you have that piece of paper saying you understand and can implement those principles.”

Armed with a summary and résumé showcasing her new credential, Cabral attended her first career fair in Charlottesville in late April. She didn’t get a job offer, but she received a lot of attention. “[The certificate] really jump-starts the conversation and kind of helps distinguish me from other candidates that might not have it,” she explains. “At this point, I feel pretty optimistic that this will eventually get me the job that I want.”

Cabral is not alone in trying to get a leg up. A growing number of laid-off workers — and employees worried about job security — are turning to executive education to boost their résumés. At the same time, executive education programs are seeing sharp declines in enrollment by students bankrolled by their employers and in company requests for customized courses. (See related story on page 52.)
“Clearly the demand has shifted away from huge companies spending lots of money sending their folks to executive education to these sort of free agents coming in to really pick out the courses that mean the most to them,” says Richard S. Coughlan, senior associate dean for graduate and executive programs at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business. The school has seen an 8 percent jump in its open-enrollment executive education courses during the last year, with many of the participants coming from companies hard hit by the recession, including Qimonda.

Other schools report a similar trend. VCU’s Center for Corporate Education has seen a 30 percent increase in participation in its Certified Financial Planner (CFP) series. And there is so much demand for the Black Belt Six Sigma course that the school is expanding the number of classes it offers from three to five.

Interest in contracting certificate
Likewise, inquiries about open-enrollment courses at Old Dominion University’s Executive Development Center are up 25 percent, says director Michael Dugan. One area of interest is a master’s certificate in government contracting, thanks in part to the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The federal stimulus package is creating opportunities for procurement and contract specialists as companies prepare to bid on a variety of infrastructure projects.

Roy Hinton, associate dean of executive programs at the George Mason University School of Management, says that a growing number of employees in sectors experiencing major downturns, such as real estate, construction, financial services and information technology, are enrolling in courses. Many participants, he says, are older, often in their late 40s and early 50s. Some are unemployed, while others are trying to increase their value in hopes of hanging onto their jobs.

“Some of it is preventative and some of it’s reactive, but both groups realize that they can no longer just launch the past into the future and rely on what used to work,” says Hinton. The most popular courses include negotiating conflict. “They’re saying to themselves, ‘Uh-oh. This calls for some new competencies. I’d better get them,’” Hinton says.
Open-enrollment courses are filling up in part because many laid-off workers receive training benefits as part of their severance packages. That’s how Jay Fournier, a materials scientist at Philip Morris USA for 20 years, paid for his mini-MBA course at UR this spring.

Employment and economic development organizations also are stepping up funding. Cabral received full payment for her courses from the Capital Area Training Consortium in Richmond, and VCU is working with the Virginia Employment Commission and county unemployment offices to offer reduced rates to job seekers.

Others, however, are willing to pay out of pocket for courses that can range from $550 for a half-day workshop at UR to about $5,500 (including textbooks) for the six-session CFP program at VCU. “Even though their personal funds are likely to be tight, these people are willing to invest in themselves because they realize that they’ve got to improve themselves or enhance their marketability if they’re going to compete in this job market,” says Richard J. Chvala, director of VCU’s Center for Corporate Education.

A targeted hit
Many job seekers turn to graduate programs or online courses, but school officials say executive education offers benefits that they can’t receive elsewhere. Participants can get a targeted hit on a specific topic, says Dugan. They offer certification opportunities, as well as training, and executive education programs typically have a higher pass rate than online programs.

Most importantly, says Chvala, executive education offers a networking opportunity. Students can discuss strategy with other job seekers, for instance. Fournier notes that of 18 participants in his mini-MBA course, four were unemployed and they formed a bond. Students also get to know workers employed at local companies.

“We have a pretty good contact list of companies in the area that are growing, that are strong, that are looking to recruit,” says Chvala. “Participants in our programs get to know people who know people, and they can really get their name out there.”

No one, however, believes that completion of an executive education course guarantees getting a new job. “What I’m telling our participants is that they have an obligation to build a story around the experience that they’ve had in one of these professional development courses,” says Coughlan, noting that job seekers need to include the coursework in their cover letter, as well as in a prominent place on their résumé.

“It has to connect with other things that you’ve done, and it has to be part of your plan for whatever position you aspire to,” he says. “We’re helping them with this, but a line on a résumé is only as good as things that surround it and the candidate’s ability to draw something from it. If they do that, then executive education can be a real differentiator for a job candidate

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