Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 4: The Bachelor's Degree

In my book Quick Education and Training Options Guide: Choose the Career Entry Route That’s Right for You, coming out in October, I discuss various ways people can improve their skills through education and training. I cover many kinds of formal and informal training, including apprenticeship, military training, and self-instruction, among others.

Although I do not, by any means, single out the bachelor's degree as the best kind of preparation, I make a good case for it. I point out that a bachelor’s degree can provide you with many advantages in the job market. In fact, some jobs require it. For example, to become licensed as a professional engineer or a public school teacher, you generally need to have a bachelor’s degree from an approved program. In many other occupations, there is no legal requirement, but employers will not consider job candidates who do not have at least a bachelor’s degree, sometimes in a specific major. Accountants, foresters, and financial analysts are examples of careers where a specialized bachelor’s is expected. In still other careers, a bachelor’s is not required but preferred.

Then I give specific reasons why a bachelor’s degree is such a valuable credential:
  • It gives you broad and deep knowledge of the field. A bachelor’s degree program has requirements that ensure that you will learn more than you could in a two-year program or from on-the-job experiences. It helps you understand theoretical issues that are the basis of problem-solving techniques and creative thinking.
  • It gives you a foundation for further learning. Our economy is changing so rapidly that workers need to continue learning throughout their careers. Even if they do not pursue higher-level degrees that require the bachelor’s as a foundation, they will need to take courses or pursue informal learning to remain productive as their jobs evolve. But continuous learning requires skills that go beyond the immediate demands of the job—skills in critical thinking, writing, math, and research methods. That’s another reason why employers prefer bachelor’s degree holders over people who have taken courses related only to the entry-level job.
  • It represents a commitment of time and energy. Four years is a long time to devote to any effort, and employers appreciate people who have made that commitment and have seen it through to completion.
  • It gives you knowledge beyond your major. Students often wonder why bachelor’s degree programs include requirements for courses in departments outside their major--such as literature, philosophy, history, public speaking, political science, the arts, or science. A bachelor’s degree is meant to produce a well-rounded citizen, not a robotic worker. Employers believe that bachelor’s degree holders have a broad understanding of the society in which business is conducted. People with the degree have explored enough different subjects to be fully committed to their career specialization yet have the flexibility to adapt as their career undergoes change. For example, if your job should open to an international market--as happens so often these days--knowledge of geography, history, comparative religion, and foreign language can be very useful.
  • On average, it leads to better-paying and more secure jobs. Bachelor's degree holders averaged $53,300 per year in earnings in 2009, an advantage of $26,692 over high school dropouts. Their unemployment rate was 5.2% in 2009, compared to 14.6% for high school dropouts. These advantages are actually growing over time.
  • It enriches your life beyond your job. The same breadth of learning that will make you a better learner and a more flexible employee also will help you to appreciate all aspects of life. It will give you a context in which to get more out of experiences such as a nature walk, a conversation with a person much older than you, a movie, a visit to a foreign country, a political speech, or a news article about an emerging technology.

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