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Finding Professional Success on a Non-Linear Career Path

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By Amanda Chaulk

Go to college. Earn your degree. Get a job. Work steadily and retire. Sounds like a pretty traditional and linear trajectory, right?

Traditional, yes. Typical, no.

An interesting fact jumped off the page while I was reading the most recent release of the Current Population Survey data on Educational Attainment in the United States: 2013. If you look at the traditional college students between the ages of 18 to 24, they account for less than 10 percent of all degree holders.

For those with a bachelor’s degree, only 6 percent of them are 18-24, while another 12 percent are 25-29 years old. There is even data for people getting their degree when they are over 75 years old.

Education and Salary Earnings
Another factoid that the Census Bureau has analyzed a number of times is the relationship between educational attainment and earnings. In a 2011 report, they show annual salaries for those of us working full time, year-round jobs by the levels of education we have completed. There is a distinct relationship between participation in the workforce (number employed) as well as earnings (annual salary) correlation.

As an example, 60 percent of those with a master’s degree are employed full-time and their median annual earnings is nearly $70,000. Compare that to an associate’s degree holder, who has a similar employment percentage but earns nearly $30,000 less in salary. The more college you have completed, the more money you earn, and the more likely you are to be employed.

The ‘Earning and Learning’ Approach
Where these two facts come together for me is in Georgetown University’s “Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Lost Generation” report from September 2013. The report dissects the populations that are struggling in our post-recession era and recognizes that “the lockstep march from school to work and then on to retirement no longer applies for a growing share of Americans.”

The report explains, in part, why the percentage of traditional-aged students earning their bachelor’s degree is lower than you would expect right after high school. Instead, they are earning and learning, taking longer to start their post-secondary education or finish it. This may sound like pessimism on the surface, but it can actually be permission to take a career path of your own making.

Deciding to Change My Own Career Path
From my perspective, this is a reflection of my own career path. I attended college immediately after high school and received my Bachelor of Science degree in architecture. Rather than go straight to graduate school, I decided to join the workforce to “earn and learn” on the job. What I learned was that I wanted to change my career path and use on-the-job training to gain skills in marketing and sales.

My sales skills were good enough to convince my current employers that my previous experience in marketing would translate to higher education. Now I take graduate-level courses in research and statistics to not only enhance my job, but to advance my credentials while I work.

I think about it this way: if less than 20 percent of all bachelor or associate degree holders have earned that credential before their 30s, then the other 80+ percent will pursue it later on. Those 80+ percent likely fit into the “learning and earning” category of employees continuing their education. If employers reward jobs requiring higher levels of educational attainment with higher salaries and greater employment, there is motivation to learn more to earn more and stay employed longer.

Which Career is Right for You?
Not all degrees are created equal, but there is significant data about which degrees have the lowest levels of unemployment, greater pay, and corresponding educational requirements. For anyone who is working after some level of college but is dissatisfied, finding information about career prospects are only a click away.

One of my favorite sites to navigate this is the, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. Their Explore Careers section lets you browse by what skills you already have, what occupations are the fastest growing or by comparing those jobs you find interesting.

The takeaway of the data, for me, is that no career path needs to be a straight line. There is opportunity and motivation to make changes, improvements or complete left turns to get where you want to be in your career. Often the way to get there is through some form of education, which has a significant return on that investment.

Amanda ChaulkAmanda Chaulk is a senior market researcher at the University of Vermont’s Continuing and Distance Education. She is taking courses at UVM to further her knowledge and increase her credentials.