Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images
Derrick Lewis has new appreciation for something a coworker told him 20 years ago: “You have to keep learning.”
That advice means more for Lewis now because at age 55, he’s started classes to earn a certificate in culinary arts. A food-service manager for the Georgia Department of Corrections, Lewis arrives at work at 4 a.m., leaves at 7, and by 8 a.m. is in a classroom at Wiregrass Technical College in Valdosta, Ga. Then he goes back to his job to finish his eight-hour shift.
“It’s a long day, but it’s worth it,” says Lewis. He’s pursuing the certificate so he can rise through the ranks to an office job. “These positions require so much more than they used to.”
More and more, people such as Lewis are seeking certificates to help improve their income or job security, or to get promoted. Certificates — which are offered at community colleges and four-year institutions, both online and in person — usually take less time in the classroom to earn than associate or bachelor’s degrees. Many, in fact, take less than a year to complete.
The skills taught in these programs tend to focus on what you need to know for particular jobs or within specific industries — from the ins and outs of the business accounting software Quickbooks to preparing to become a personal fitness trainer. In many cases, certificate programs at community colleges are specifically tailored to teach the skills employers in the region are looking for.
Certificates can be a quick way to add skills to a worker's portfolio and increase income. Research shows that earning one of these credentials can offer a real boost in salary. For example, supply chain and logistics managers who get certificates related to data skills to analyze traffic and order patterns can see their salaries increase from $70,000 to $85,000, according to research by Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes data on labor markets. School administrators who get training in data analysis go from $68,000 to $78,000 a year, on average. Graphic designers who make $54,000 can see their salaries increase to $75,000 if they master front-end web development.
“The certificate functions as a supply signal, saying, ‘I’ve got some skills that are increasingly in demand in the market,’ ” says Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass. Sigelman notes that like all employees, older workers need to “do their homework to make sure the skill they’re learning is actually in demand in the field they’re in, and that jobs with those skills pay more.”
Because they're already in the workforce, older workers often can see for themselves what skills their bosses need them to add.
“It’s very clear that the older you are when you go back to school, the more practical you are,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which has studied the fates of older adults who got certificates after losing their jobs or being downgraded from full to part time. “Their hours worked came back, so the certificates look pretty successful for them. When we track by age, we find that they make better choices.”
For older workers who are less certain about which certificate programs to pursue, conversations with community college admissions staff members can offer some guidance, experts say. Discuss your professional interests and ask which programs at the college are most in demand or have the best job placement records after completion.
“If you’re going to get a certificate, there are two things that matter,” says Sigelman. “Is the skill of value? And is this validation of your skill going to be something that employers will recognize” by coming from a respected institution? “It doesn’t have to be Harvard, but it has to be an institution in the local market that employers know,” he says.
Lewis is on schedule to get his certificate next year and is confident that it will lead to a promotion. And when he retires from that job, he plans to use what he’s learned to open his own bakery.