Every high school student makes a choice when they are about to graduate – enter the job market right away, enter a trade school, or enroll in a university?
Everyone will make the same kind of choice many times throughout their lives. If you first choose to work, the option is usually still available later to go back to school. University graduates sometimes feel like they are reset back to square one: once they have a degree in-hand, they must choose again whether to enter the job market right away, continue studying for a Master’s Degree or Doctorate, or work towards professional designations and certifications!
Striking a balance between working and studying will dominate your career path, lifelong income, and job satisfaction, so everyone always needs a plan.
Step 1: Understand the Question
If you are graduating high school or college, the question of going right to work or going back to school (or training) seems pretty straight-forward: Earn money now, or try to find a way to increase the amount of money you will earn later. This does not give you the full picture – a big part of the reason why you might go right to work, or go back to school, has as much to do with the doors that will open (regardless of the choice) as it does the paycheck you earn or the degree you earn upon completion.
Your career will change and evolve, be prepared!
Baby boomers, on average, held about 11 jobs by the time they turned 50. If we think each person was 17 when entering the job market (some entered earlier, some later), that means each person changed jobs, on average, once every 3 years (less than 10% held four or fewer jobs during their career).
You might have heard that older generations often stayed with the same employer for their entire career – even though people changed jobs more often, this is often due to promotions or role-changes, more than a full career change. With younger generations, we do not have enough data yet to show how many jobs each person has, but research is suggesting that young people are changing jobs about as often, but changing their employer, and the types of jobs, more often than in the past.
This means that the types of jobs you are applying for today, and the type of training you would get from going back to school, is probably not going to be exactly lined up with the work you do 8 or 9 years from now.
This is important for your choices today. Everyone needs to prepare themselves for a rich and rewarding career doing something they enjoy, and an important part of that is growth. This means that regardless of your choice to work or study, you need to focus on building valuable skills and experience that you can use to build up your career later.
Step 2: Build Skills
Once you realize that the job you are preparing yourself for today might be a far cry from what you want to be doing in 10 years, the next step is building skills to distinguish yourself from all the other job-seekers.
Building skills is vital for any successful career, regardless of how much education or training you have. There are over 150 million workers in the United States today: to give yourself a fighting chance at a rewarding career, you need to be able to do things that set you apart from the crowd.
Building Skills in the Workforce
If you are jumping right into the workforce, this means actively seeking out jobs with some level of on-the-job training, and opportunities to grow over time. You do not need to constantly switch jobs and employers, so long as you feel that the work you are doing today will make you a more valuable asset to any company tomorrow.
Building Skills at School
If you are studying, needing to set yourself apart becomes more obvious. As soon as you graduate, you will be in direct competition for everyone else from your major for the same pool of jobs.
This means your goal while in school is not just to excel in your major, but find new and exciting ways to show how you are different from everyone else – what makes you a more valuable prospective employee than everyone else from your classes.
Most universities have built-in ways to do this: you can declare a second major or a minor, ideally focusing on skills and knowledge that will be valuable for jobs mostly recruiting in your primary major. You can also join skill-building fraternities, sororities, or student organizations, which include seminar series, special projects, and opportunities to take on leadership roles.
Step 3: Build Your Network
Building a network is one of the ways that going to a full university can really help your career, even beyond the skills learned.
Your “Network” is the group of peers you build with similar careers (or career objectives). They might be close friends, or even just professional acquaintances that you occasionally work with on a personal basis. Most universities work on building student networks by encouraging group projects, collaborations, and mixing students together. Professional organizations (again, like fraternities and sororities) might be the fastest way to build up a network, as they often organize mixers including both current students and graduates already in the workforce.
The Hidden Job Market
The reason these networks help is that it will connect you to job openings, promotions, and career advancement opportunities that simply do not exist unless you already know someone. If you have looked for a job recently, you have probably been very frustrated by the fact that up to 80% of job openings simply are not advertised at all – they get filled by someone who knows someone who can provide a recommendation.
Building a professional network of friends and contacts working in the industry where you want to be will help you tap in to this huge pool of rewarding jobs that you might otherwise completely miss out on. In fact, the opportunities to build your professional network through peer groups and internships is one of the least-advertised (and most important) advantages of going to college.
Networking Outside of School
If you jump straight to the workforce, or have already graduated, building up your professional network might be a bit slower, but is still very important. Try joining a professional social network, like LinkedIn, to help manage your networking presence. As you build relationships with other professionals, you can add them to your network in order to keep in touch outside the narrow scope of the job at hand.
You can start to balloon your professional network by participating in volunteer groups, social events, and basically any activity that lets you meet and mix with new people. Blurring the line, taking evening or weekend classes at a local college on topics that interest you is a great way to both build your unique skill set and build your network at the same time.
Step 4: Compare Cost
This is the big one – how much will school cost you, and how much will you lose in lost wages if you attend? Think about the jobs that will be available to you when you graduate – is the benefit worth the cost?
This is the hardest part of the problem to really define and solve for yourself. To try to see the scope of the problem, try out our job search tool and look for some job openings in your area. You can narrow down your search by using keywords describing the kind of work you want to do – it does not need to be your dream job, but something you could see yourself doing, and will help you build skills and a network.
Find Your Job First, Decide on Education Later
Once you pick out jobs you like, compare what qualifications they require against the pay they are offering. If you see that the job has very low pay but absolutely requires a 4 year degree, it suggests that there are a lot more people with that degree than there are jobs willing to hire them – so you will need to really focus on building skills and keeping the cost of education down to break even.
On the other hand, many jobs emphasize experience and practical skills more than education requirements. For these, you can start working backwards – to get the experience requirement, what other jobs will you need as a stepping-stone, and how much do those pay? If your dream job requires 5 years of toil in a job you hate for low pay, you can usually replace some of that experience requirement with some relevant education or other training.
Minimizing Education Cost
If you do decide to go to college or university, your choice now is focused on balancing cost, quality, and networking opportunities.
- The cheapest way to get a 4-year degree (outside of scholarships) is completing your first two years of general education requirements at a smaller local community college while continuing to live at home, or working part-time to offset the cost.
- The most expensive way is usually living on-campus for all 4 years at the same institution, which can add tens of thousands in extra tuition and room & board expenses.
The flip side is that just attending class, then going back home seriously reduces the amount of interaction you will get with your peers, hurting your networking opportunities. Staying at the same school for all 4 years also opens more doors to get involved in professional organizations early, rising to leadership positions (which looks great on your resume).
Whatever balance of work, training, and education you take, make sure it is an informed choice. Look at job postings early and often, not necessarily to constantly switch jobs, but to make sure you know what skills are in demand, and to help plot a course for your career forward!