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Jump in, the water’s fine

Older professionals can be reluctant to go back to school, so local executive education programs are evolving to meet their needs.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Jonathan Bogatay is going to great lengths to encourage his employees to pursue adult learning. He’s taking the leadership initiative and going back to school himself.

Bogatay has been in the hospitality industry for more than 33 years, the past 17 at the North Central Group, but he’s heading back to school to provide an example for his reluctant staff.

Bogatay, CEO of the North Central Group for the past five years, did not originally go to school to be a good host, but after an early job as a hotel bellboy he grew to love hospitality enough to make a career of it. Now he wants to help elevate the careers of his staff.

He has enrolled in the two-year hospitality degree program offered by Madison College, a program that’s delivered online and provides flexibility for a busy professional who can’t get to a Tuesday morning class.

His motivation is to give employees a nudge, especially after a team member engagement survey indicated that his employees would like additional opportunities for learning and development, but also identified time and age as big barriers.

Even with programs that cost hundreds of dollars per credit, they don’t view cost as an overwhelming barrier because of the professional value they place on earning more degrees or credentials, and because of the availability of corporate reimbursement, foundation grants, and loans.

Jonathan Bogatay, CEO, The North Central Group

It all comes down to time and whether they see themselves as part of the collegiate culture. “Everybody’s too busy and everyone thinks they are too old,” Bogatay says. “I’ve had team members tell me they are not 20 any more, so they are not sure about adult learning.”

They are not alone. With the Great Recession behind us, there is less of an impetus for professional improvement. Interest in adult, degree-seeking education tends to be countercyclical to the economy, according to David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach, and e-learning for the University of Wisconsin–Extension. Schejbal leads the division that works with all 26 campuses in the University of Wisconsin System to increase access to programs, classes, and degrees.

“When the economy is poor, a lot of adults go back to school because they either have the time because they are out of a job or because they are concerned about their jobs,” Schejbal says. “When the economy is good, most adults are back working and at that time, a lot of businesses are developing workforce-training programs, so certifications, badges, and non-credit programs tend to be very popular.

“It doesn’t mean there aren’t adults who are seeking degrees during good economic times, but the curve has a tendency to shift.”

The trend lines for adult students who are attempting to bend the learning curve are perfectly logical. They are interested in moving into fields that are rapidly developing with high salaries — health care, information technology and various kinds of technology programs, project management, and business.

Motivations for going back to school vary from the personal goal of finishing a degree program, to growing tired of their existing job or career, to setting a good example for colleagues. One thing several college executives noted is the number of returning students who already have degrees.

In the Madison College program for IT mobile applications developers, 53% of the graduates already had a bachelor’s degree or higher, but they came back to change careers. “Our IT programs are all high, between 30 to 40% of the population are students with a degree,” says Bryan Woodhouse, dean of business and applied arts at Madison College. “Nursing is another one, physical therapy, accounting, and even the veterinary program have a high percentage of students who earned a degree somewhere.

“Everyone has their own story. Maybe they can’t find sufficient employment in whatever field they graduated in, so they are coming back to technical school for some retraining.”

Of the 14 over-50 students attending Herzing University this fall, some already have associate degrees and some have bachelor’s degrees, but all enrolled in the past year and all are looking for a new career. “When I first dove into the question [about the most sought-after programs], I thought the answer, hands down, would be IT or nursing because they are so employable and you can get in and get out relatively quickly,” says Bill Vinson, president of the Madison campus of Herzing University. “In two years you can test for your RN, but of the older students we have only two in nursing, two in technology, and five that are in business programs, one of which is in an MBA.

“So half of them are in business and tech, which is kind of nice to see, as is their desire to excel or finish a dream that they had.”

In most cases their primary motivation is related to some type of transition in either their careers or the expectation of proficiencies in the workplace, says Steve King, executive director of the Center for Professional and Executive Development at the University of Wisconsin School of Business.

“They might go from being an individual contributor to a manager of people for the first time, and when they make that transition they often need some skills and some knowledge in order to make that transition well,” King notes. “Someone else may have a proficiency transition. You probably have heard of green belts, yellow belts, and black belts — those are proficiency levels. People come back to school so they can earn those levels of proficiency.”


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