It used to be fairly common to spend the bulk of one’s career working for a single company. This workplace model seemed almost like guaranteed employment, with a gold watch and defined-benefit pension waiting at the end. Today, lifetime employees are a rare breed. Many of today’s younger workers don’t even want to stay at one company very long.

While guaranteed employment may be a relic of the past, it’s important to think in terms of guaranteed employability, given that most people need to work somewhere. This means keeping your skills current and yourself in demand.

Continuous learning

In some fields, ongoing training is mandatory. From airline pilots to financial planners, many workers have to receive a certain number of hours of training every year. In many other fields, additional training is optional — at least in theory. But for those intent on proactively managing their careers, it’s essential to keep learning.

  • The Traditional Route
    According to a 2016 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 55% of organizations offered some form of tuition reimbursement for college undergraduate programs and 52% for graduate programs. The IRS allows students to receive up to $5,250 of tuition assistance from their employers tax-free.

    That’s an amazing benefit. Does your employer offer it? If so, are you taking advantage of it? According to the Wall Street Journal, fewer than 10% of eligible employees do.

    Sure, it takes extra effort to go to school while you’re working, perhaps raising a family, and taking care of all your other responsibilities. But receiving high-quality training and possibly another certification or degree — all courtesy of your employer — is a valuable benefit.

    While your employer may provide certain parameters detailing what you can study, you probably won’t be limited to just the schools in your area. A growing number of prestigious universities now offer degree programs online, making it convenient to “attend” lectures and connect virtually with classmates. Penn State, for example, through its World Campus, offers online undergrad degrees in 26 fields, master’s degrees in 37, and even a doctorate degree in nursing. All courses are the same ones offered on campus, and a graduate of an online program receives the same degree as a student who attends in person.

    Other universities offer online certificate programs, such as the Harvard Business School’s Credential of Readiness (CORe). The three-course $2,000 program is designed for people who don’t have a business degree but want to learn “the language of business.”

    A number of other schools, including MIT and Stanford, make many of their courses available at no cost for those who care more about the content than a credential.
     
  • Endless Opportunities
    Today, there is an ever-expanding number of courses available through online learning platforms.

    Coursera.org offers over 2,000 courses from top-tier schools such as Princeton, Duke, and the University of Michigan. Topics range from programming to negotiating, and from neuroscience to design. Most courses feature pre-recorded lectures and online quizzes, culminating in an “electronic course certificate.” Non-degree course prices range from $29-$99. Some online degree programs are offered at higher prices.

    edX.org also offers a wide range of courses from well-known universities, including the University of Chicago, Wellesley, and overseas schools, including Oxford. Some of its courses are known as MOOCs (massive open online courses) and have specific start and end dates; others are self-paced. Some are available with college credit; others are certificate courses.

    Other players in the online learning space include Udemy.com, Udacity.com, and Lynda.com (available for free through some libraries).

    Of course, reading the latest books by the innovative thinkers in your field, listening to podcasts, and reading blogs are other ways to keep current in your field. What’s the latest book you’ve read related to your profession? If it’s been a while, it might be time to find a worthy title and start sharpening your professional saw.

Learning for life

The benefits of continuous learning don’t extend only to those in the early or middle stages of their careers. Many of today’s older workers would like to continue working past the traditional retirement age. The unfortunate reality is that many of them will end up retiring earlier than they would prefer. Some will have to stop working because of health issues or the need to care for a loved one, but others will lose a job and won’t be able to find another one.

While age discrimination can be a factor in some of these situations, so can a lack of up-to-date skills. If your age is potentially working against you, it’s that much more important to demonstrate your skills are current and sharp.

Here are two final benefits to lifelong learning. A growing body of research indicates that it extends our lives and improves the quality of our lives (the book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, offers many examples). So, sign up for a course, read a professional book, or listen to an industry-related podcast. It’ll strengthen your career while also enhancing your life.