The willingness of employers to commit funds for continuing education for their personnel waxes and wanes with the management philosophy in vogue and the availability of funds. When times are good, it's easier to convince the boss to spend money on courses, seminars and conferences; when times are bad, it's harder.
Continuing education takes more than money, of course. It requires you to invest time and make a commitment. This applies to everything from self-study to university courses. Continuing education must provide value for the time spent. An employer only will pay if it can expect some level of return.
Corporate training programs range from non-existent to highly structured. If your company lacks a program, it's completely up to you to decide what you need and how to get it. Even in structured programs, a lot of variation may be available. You always have the final responsibility for improving your skills. Your personal motivations for training and continuing education should guide your efforts.
So, first and foremost, you must determine your objectives. These might vary from enhancing your knowledge of a certain technology to retaining a professional engineering (PE) license to earning an advanced engineering degree.
Once you've set your objectives, continuing education plans then can fit a logical structure. For instance, if your goal is to do the minimum amount of work to keep a PE license in force, the answer is straightforward. Online training, to the limit permitted, usually is cheapest and quickest. Cost may range from free to very modest and no travel time and expense are incurred. If some face-to-face training is required, local technical meetings generally are the next step because both direct and indirect (travel) expenses are low.
At the other extreme, getting a worthwhile advanced engineering degree generally demands that you go back to school. Many universities offer master's degree programs for working professionals. These mix evening courses, short but intensive sessions, and some distance learning.
Most professionals lie in the vast middle ground. They have a desire to learn and do their job better. At the same time, they realize the commitment required for an advanced degree doesn't fit their objectives. So, here are some pointers for the typical professional looking to sharpen skills and keep them up-to-date.
Carefully select online and distance learning. Such options continue to grow. Webinars lasting from 30 to 90 minutes can cover everything from a general introduction to a subject to detailed exploration of a specialized area. Direct costs are relatively low and travel costs are zero. Webinars normally are sponsored by professional societies, magazines (see, for example, www.ChemicalProcessing.com/webinars/), commercial training companies and vendors. Quality varies but, with careful selection, you can put together an effective training program.
Webinars may be either real-time or on demand (i.e., listening when you want to a recorded presentation). Attending a real-time online presentation usually is worth the effort. Not only will you get the opportunity to ask questions but also, in my experience, such presentations more strongly hold an attendee's attention and thus provide more value for the time you invest.
Focus on gaining short-term benefits. Moving up to intensive training sessions requires spending money, e.g., for seminar or conference fees and travel expenses. If you expect to get your employer to pay, remember that a successful event to an employer is one where you come back with something that makes money immediately. So, ask specific questions before signing up. Will the particular subjects covered help do your daily job? What sorts of people (e.g., process engineers, researchers or managers) does the event target and can you learn from them as well as the instructor? Do the subjects focus on the future of the industry or just look back at the past?
Some people may decry this attitude as short-term thinking instead of long-term planning. There's some validity to that criticism. Nevertheless, your plan must account for the realities your boss deals with. If you want your employer to give you the time and money to attend an event, you must focus on the short-term payoff. Afterwards, you must advertise the benefits it provided. That will make selling the next course, seminar or conference easier.
Teach to learn. If no available offering covers what you're interested in, why not teach it? Nothing makes you learn a subject more than having to organize your thoughts and experience so you can teach others. This is the hardest and most-time-consuming route to take — but it will teach you the most. Offer to do a 30-to-60-minute technical presentation at a local meeting of a professional society. Or put together an in-house presentation for a lunchtime session. Figuring out what's important to teach other people will get you to learn more than any other method.
ANDREW SLOLEY, is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. You can e-mail him at ASloley@putman.net