People are often surprised when I tell them that I just obtained my bachelor’s degree in 2021. Because I appear to have progressed through my career seamlessly from the outside looking in (far from true), people tend to assume that I have an extensive formal education that paved the way. However, my non-traditional way of navigating to a six-figure career has been filled with triumphs, roadblocks, learning, experiencing, overcoming, and giving up at times.
In the past, much relevance has been placed on degrees obtained at prestigious colleges. With the information age in full swing, e-commerce on the rise, and Covid-19 forcing many out of the workplace and into remote settings, the importance of traditional education has declined, while the value of individual learning, experience, and personal development has come to the forefront. Of course, getting a college degree is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated but the world is starting the realize that there are alternate ways of gaining the knowledge needed to excel at work.
I have had many experiences, good and bad, throughout my career. There have been so many valuable lessons and I have used those to create a list of ways to build value in your career without enrolling in a university. In this post, I am only focusing on things I have done to further my corporate career so will exclude things like apprenticeships, internships, etc. Those are obviously viable options but I am only listing avenues that I have experienced.
Many industries look for candidates with specialized skills. Over time, that pursuit has led to the creation of certifications that provide proof that the candidate has mastered the skills needed to do the job. As a Payroll and Human Resources professional, I have obtained certifications from the American Payroll Association, The Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI), and The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Each organization has provided training and study tools to help with obtaining certifications. They also offer memberships that include notifications to keep you up-to-date on industry changes. Whatever your career choice, search for specialty certification in that profession and after obtaining it, keep connected so you are always current on the body of knowledge. Some other advantages of joining these professional associations are the seminars, conferences, webinars, and the availability of mentorship.
CROSS-TRAINING AND IDENTIFYING OPPORTUNITIES
Prior to establishing my expertise in Payroll and HR, I was working in customer service. One day, the Payroll Specialist and her manager had a disagreement and she quit on the spot. I was asked if I knew Payroll and I answered, “No, but I’m sure I can figure it out.” I worked late into the night and got payroll processed. What I learned from that experience is that when a chance to grow presents itself, I should always be ready. I got into Human Resources the same way; opportunity knocked and I answered. Even now, I love to write so within my role, I take advantage of any task that involves writing. Know what your interests are and as long as you are meeting or exceeding expectations in your day-to-day work, make time to learn in preparation for your next role.
BOOKS, E-BOOKS, AUDIOBOOKS, VIDEOS & PODCASTS
With so many different mediums available to find information, it is easy to come across exactly what you’re looking for. Amazon has books and e-books on any subject you can conjure up. You can also find them in places like Barnes and Noble or whoever your book retailer of choice is. If you’re like many people who do not have time to sit and read a book, listen to one. Audible is my go-to for audiobooks. I keep a subscription and listen to at least one book a month. In addition, they offer podcasts on varying subjects that you can take advantage of. For the video aspect, I absolutely love learning on YouTube. No matter the topic, I have solved so many problems by watching videos from different content creators. Whatever platform you choose, there is an infinite amount of information at your disposal. Take advantage.
Subject matter experts are found everywhere. Now that the misconception of teachers in school being the only people you can learn from has been rightfully put to rest, the ability to create valuable content around expertise has expanded to everyone with a specific talent. There are several online platforms you can invest in to further your education. LinkedIn is well known as a professional social media. There, you can showcase your resume, references, networking skills, and anything else related to your career. A lesser-known service that is offered there is LinkedIn Learning, where a simple entry into the search bar returns a plethora of courses in your area of interest. This is a paid platform included in a premium membership. Udemy was first introduced to me as a professional development platform included in benefits at a former employer. I found the courses so useful that I continued using the service after I moved on. They, too, offer either a monthly subscription or you can pay a small fee for each course. Another great continuing education service is Coursera. They are a little different than the aforementioned spaces as in addition to courses, they work directly with some universities and companies to provide certificates and degrees. They can be more costly than the others, but if your plan is to get your degree or certification without student loans or heavy debt, it could be perfect!
BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH POTENTIAL MENTORS
Denise Benson passed away many years ago, but I will never forget her. Not only did she give me my first opportunity in what turned out to be a lasting career; she wholeheartedly believed I could do a great job at whatever task was put in front of me. Having someone to learn from, bounce ideas off of, and advocate for you is pivotal when you want to advance your career. Performing well and building relationships with people in power that can vouch for your work ethic while showing you the ropes is a priceless weapon in your arsenal when climbing the corporate ladder. I am not saying pursue executives and members of the leadership team in hopes of getting them to co-sign your desire to move up in the company. I am saying that you should find commonalities with people around you. Get to know them and take advantage of informal opportunities to connect and build authentic relationships. Happy hours, coffee mornings, potlucks, etc. can be fun, but they can also be beneficial for building a great support system in the workplace.
SHOOT FOR THE STARS AND LAND ON THE MOON
My grandmother used to say that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. She was right. I have listened to countless employees complain about all of the work they were doing while not being compensated appropriately. There are people around you that have no idea of how cumbersome or complex your workload is. On the flip side, there are others that notice the additional tasks you have taken on and are happy to continue to use you while saving money by not hiring for your additional job and not raising your pay to match your work. Either way, you have to speak up for yourself. Think of yourself as your own PR and an activist for your rights. Standing up to leadership can be scary as it is a moment that can and likely will shape the relationship moving forward. Seek guidance from your mentor, circle of professional friends, be reasonable and open to other perspectives. Years ago, I was recommended a book by Kerry Patterson called Crucial Conversations. I have called on what I learned so many times to help me navigate tough situations in life. Making your intentions known can benefit you in many ways. Even if your demands can’t be met right now, a roadmap on how to get there can be created.
There are situations where no matter how much you bring to the table, your value will remain unseen. Let’s say you have the experience and expertise and are able to satisfactorily perform the duties. You have sought mentorship and opportunities, have met any time thresholds required for your current position before promotion, and have let your organization know about your desire to grow and develop. They still ignore your requests. It is likely time to move on. According to this CNBC Article, switching jobs is an effective way to boost your income. The average annual increase is about 3% while switching jobs can net a 4.3% increase. Still, those numbers are modest as I have personally witnessed colleagues denied a well-deserved promotion move on and receive salary increases upwards of 40%.
A degree had been on my bucket list, so I went back to school and obtained it but in all honesty, it has not changed how employers see me. There is no substitute for on-the-job experience, discipline, continuous self-improvement, and a willingness to set learning and career goals. Be willing to do the work needed for advancement but also be willing to move on if the company you give your all to fails to see how much of a commodity you are.
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