If you're looking for a great career with a two-year degree, Joel Simon has a piece of advice for you: Study computers and Internet technologies.
Simon would know. As the vice president of workforce and economic development for the Chicago-based nonprofit Council for Adult and Experiential learning (CAEL), he works with cities and regions across the country to help them align education and training programs to fill available jobs. That means he knows what jobs are available and what training it takes to get hired.
Of course, before deciding which path to pursue, Simon points out that you have to define your terms. For instance, if you're interested in business, keep in mind that the overarching field of "business" can be incredibly broad, referring to marketing, accounting, finance, technology, sales and more. Of all of those arenas, Simon stresses, IT is the most in-demand right now, (though health care and skilled labor aren't far behind). This means IT degrees can be a hot commodity in multiple fields.
"There's really not a community where we've worked that doesn't have some pronounced need for people in computers and IT," he says.
In particular, Simon said that network security, database design, database management, mobile application sales and design, and the geospatial- (GPS) related jobs are in need of workers, across the board.
When it comes to this kind of business and technology work, Simon says that many employers don't necessarily require an associate degree. But getting an education can help provide a well-rounded background that gives you a broad understanding and context for your job.
"Very often, businesses will say something like, 'I don't care what kind of piece of paper somebody has as long as they can do the job,'" says Simon. "Now, proving that you can do the job in the absence of certain kinds of validations is very difficult." In other words, even if companies don't require a formal degree, they still want the education and skills that degree represents.
In addition to the two-year degree, Simon says it can be helpful to pursue certifications, which will demonstrate areas of specialization to potential employers. In the IT realm, certifications through Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle, for example, can be useful.
"It shows you know how to work with this particular category of technology," Simon explains. "To have that embedded within the two-year program is highly beneficial."
Whatever career you choose, Joel Simon shared the following tips when selecting a school or program for your two-year degree:
1. Seek colleges with partnerships with businesses, as opposed to transactional relationships.
Choose schools and degree programs that have local firms contributing to the curriculum development and even guest teaching. You want to have somebody who's active in the industry as opposed to someone who is 100 percent academic. That helps to keep the content fresh and relevant, and it's also a good networking opportunity — you're meeting somebody who might be your boss.
2. Find a school that has work-based and problem-based learning as a part of the program.
"Problem-based" means students aren't just learning theory — they're also delving into a real-world scenario and applying that theory. Work-based learning, aka internships and apprenticeships, allows you to actually do the work you're studying and make connections within that field.
3. Ask about post-graduation placement rates.
If a school can't tell you how many people are working in the industry for which they trained, that's a red flag.
4. Search for a curriculum that meshes with local hiring needs.
Look at the content and competencies within a program and compare those with the types of skills needs you're seeing in local job ads.
5. Ask questions about the school's industry advisory committee.
Many schools will convene an industry advisory committee to weigh in on skills and training needs of the workforce. Find out how often that advisory committee meets and whether or not the majority of members actually show up for the meetings. That level of involvement can be telling.
6. Commit to continue learning even after you earn your degree.
While a two-year degree will help you land a job initially, employers today expect their staff to continue learning throughout your career, no matter what that career may be.
What careers can you get with an associate degree?
For many prospective students, selecting a career, or figuring out how to change careers can be challenging, but there are numerous resources out there. Schools.com has articles on associate degree jobs that pay well, including some that pay off faster than bachelor's degree careers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes an online handbook that allows you to sort jobs by their median salary, how much they'll grow, educational requirements and other categories.
According to the BLS, the following five jobs typically require a certificate or two-year degree or less, and all are expected to grow between 2012 and 2022, in some cases significantly. Any of these careers could be a good choice for someone with the right credentials, but notice how much higher, relatively speaker, the average hourly rate is for the two IT jobs.
These are just examples, however, and if you're not sure where to start, a good first step is to consider what interests you most and compare schools nearby to see what programs on campus or online might suit you best.
1. Joel Simon, Vice President for Workforce and Development at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, Interviewed by the author on Nov. 21, 2014
2. Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, April 1, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/
3. "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh