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It used to be that dedication and hard work were enough to keep a job for a lifetime. But in today's economy, knowledge and flexibility are essential traits for those who plan to change careers, go after a promotion or find a new job after a layoff.

One way to maintain a competitive edge is to go back to school for continuing education.

The thought can be intimidating: Central Ohio has numerous schools, and there are countless programs of study.

There are also the questions of how to find time to go back to school, how to pay for it once you make the commitment and how to apply that knowledge to getting a new or better job.

School officials say lots of people are doing it, and the process of returning to school isn't nearly as complicated as it may look.

Here's a guide to get you headed in the right direction.

Choosing a course of study

Since its founding in 1911, Ohio Dominican University has catered largely to traditional students. But in recent years, the university has built a strong continuing education program designed to help working adults complete their associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees without derailing work and family life.

ODU spokesman John Palmer says the university offers a number of paths in the Learning Enhanced Adult Degree program. The most pop-ular track leads to an MBA, but the school also offers an associate's in business, a bachelor's in business (with or without a concentration in management) and a master's in management. Courses run six to eight weeks, and students can space them out over eight years without having to reapply. Palmer says that a student can earn an MBA in two years, however, taking only one course at a time.

Franklin University, founded in 1902, is geared toward students already in the workplace. The university offers an MBA, a master's of commun-ication and marketing and a master's of computer science. At Franklin, the student can choose to take a class in as few as three weeks or to stretch it out to as many as 15 weeks. The content is the same in the end. If classes are taken during the summer, in addition to the two traditional semes-ters, a student can earn an MBA in as little as 17 months.

Most continuing education students are looking for degrees in business, accounting and related fields, but others have a more specific focus and need to seek out a more specialized school.

Sherry Hull is an assistant professor at Mount Carmel College of Nursing and director of the school's online RN refresher course. The program is for registered nurses who have been out of active practice for several years and who wish to reenter the workforce. Online coursework, a professional adviser and a clinical practice segment prepare students to be competitive. The online portion of the course is designed to take 16 weeks, working 10 to 15 hours a week, although some people complete it in half that time and others require longer to finish. The second part of the program includes 100 hours of clinical practice in the facility where the student hopes to become employed. "If the clinical experience goes well, we hope it will result in a job offer," Hull says.

Some continuing education students aren't looking for specific skills but rather for a particular state of mind. Cat Sheridan, director of continuing education at Columbus College of Art & Design, says many professionals enter the program seeking a new perspective on their current professions.

"Art takes you out of your regular mindset and helps you see things differently," she says. "It helps you see the little parts but also see the big picture in the most foundational ways." Even a basic drawing class can help a student become a more effective employee or manager by opening up the creative mind, she says. Most continuing education classes are held in the evenings, although some workshops are offered on weekends. Classes range from drawing and painting to jewelry making and the history of great art heists. Most classes last eight to 12 weeks, and the price per course ranges from $130 for summer workshops to $460 for pottery classes.

Where to study

Some people want to return to school but just can't visualize how to squeeze extra time from

the day. Schools have solved the problem by opening neighborhood campuses and offering coursework that can be done in person in the evenings or in the middle of the night at home.

"If somebody is already in the work envi-ronment, it is not likely that they will be able to quit their job and take one to four years off to get

a degree," Franklin University spokeswoman Sherry Mercurio says. Flexibility is important to working adults, which is why most schools offer night and weekend courses, as well as courses that can be completed entirely online.

At Franklin University, a student can earn a degree never having set foot on campus. Beginning with the application process, moving through all coursework and culminating with an online graduation, a student can earn a master's degree entirely from the comfort of his desk chair.

"Students in our online degree programs are going to get the same experience they would if they were in a classroom," Mercurio says. "They will still have homework and group presentations to turn in, but it is done with the help of some very engaging technology."

Some students prefer face-to-face inter-action in a classroom. Many colleges have set up satellite campuses around town. Ohio Dominican has established branches in Dublin and at Easton, and it also offers classes in Chillicothe. In addition to its downtown campus, Franklin University offers classes in Delaware, Westerville and Dublin.

Columbus State has its main campus down-town, as well as nine branches in Franklin, Dela-ware and Union counties, but also operates the Center for Workforce Development on Cleveland Avenue, where individuals can receive certi-fications and specialized job training.

How to pay

With a mortgage, a car payment and braces for the kids to pay for, fear of a college tuition bill may put an end to a potential student's plan. The good news is that adult students have many of the same resources as traditional students, in the form of loans, grants and working their way through college. But there's an added benefit of being a working adult student-many employers are supportive of employees who are seeking self-improvement and will help pay some or all of the tuition.

Tuition varies widely, from $79 per credit hour at Columbus State to more than $30,000 for a year's tuition at some of Central Ohio's selective private colleges.

Tuition reimbursement from employers is not uncommon, but it often comes with conditions. Some companies pay a different percentage depending on what grade is earned. A grade of C may receive 50 percent reimbursement while an A earns a check for the full amount, but policies will vary by employer.

Other employers demand a time commitment in exchange for their tuition support, requiring employees to stay on staff for a period of time after the classes have been taken. Other companies will only help with tuition if the subject being studied pertains to the company's business. An accounting firm likely won't pay an employee's way through dental school, but the company may be inclined to pick up the cost of classes in management or computer technology.

Promoting your achievement

Once the classes are over or a new degree has been earned, it's important to spread the word to enhance your chances of getting a better job. While the recipient of the degree may feel proud, it will do little good unless co-workers and potential employers know about it.

Gary Stroud serves as chairman of the human resource management program at Franklin University. He believes in the power of getting out in the world and talking to people. He says it's that positive action that builds opportunity. "Most people are in the same boat," he says. "We've got a career and we don't know what we're doing with it."

He says most career-building strategies are common sense ideas that simply have to be put into action. His recommendations go something like this:

Assess your strengths and weaknesses. "Figure out how can you differentiate yourself from all the other people out there," Stroud says.

Figure out the environment of your chosen field. Is it growing, shrinking or changing direction? Is there an emerging market in which you can become an expert?

Take notice of your competition. These people will be competing for the jobs you want. You need to know what they've got and how you can stand out in comparison.

Clearly define your expectations. Aside from knowing your salary requirements, have a ready answer when asked if you will relocate, travel extensively or accept other conditions that may change your life significantly.

But before you can get a foot in the door to interview with a new company or within your existing organization, you absolutely must market yourself. "If you were a product, how would they package you?" Stroud asks. To get to the decision makers, you will have to show people the person you want them to see-the most capable, charming, exceptional version of yourself.

Stroud says many people look in the newspaper for jobs, but most openings never appear there. Employers want to hire people they know or someone who has been recommended by a colleague. Checking the wanted ads or posting a résumé online are passive strategies. The active candidates are the successful candidates, Stroud says. He recommends a few avenues for success.

Get your name out there by telling all your friends and acquaintances what you're looking for.

Talk to the professors who taught the classes you've been taking. Stroud says he receives countless job posting notifications from past students.

Put the word out among current business acquaintances. They know people in your field, and they can help you get a foot in the door.

Get involved with professional associations. Go to meetings of the group and any subcommittees, and be sure to show up for the social meet-and-greet activities. As people get to recognize your name and face, they'll think of you when they hear of a job.

When looking for a promotion within the same company, marketing yourself is no less important. The people who make those decisions may not know as much about you as you think they do. Schedule a time to give a sales pitch of your abilities.

"This is not a hallway conversation," Stroud says. "It's not an elevator conversation. Schedule 15 or 20 minutes to sit down and talk about your skills and what you want do within the company." Let your superiors know that you are interested in being promoted and that you are willing to work hard to get there.

Such a conversation may put you on the radar so that even if you can't be promoted within your current department, your manager may recommend you for a different position. A lateral move can lead to just as much upward momentum-just in a different way than you may have expected. A lateral move may even be a better choice.

"If you go into another field within the company or take another track up, it can give you broader experience and more value within the company," Stroud says.

The important thing is to begin talking. As Stroud says, "People hire people."

Resources

Here's a list of some of the educational institutions in Central Ohio that offer continuing education classes.

Ashland University

1900 E. Dublin-Granville Rd.

794-0803; ashland.edu

Capital University

1 College Ave. and Main Street

236-6101, (866) 544-6175;

capital.edu

Columbus College of Art & Design

107 N. Ninth St.

224-9101; www.ccad.edu

Columbus State Community College

550 E. Spring St.

287-5353; cscc.edu

DeVry University

1350 Alum Creek Dr.

253-7291; cols.devry.edu

Franklin University

201 S. Grant Ave.

797-4700, (877) 341-6300; franklin.edu

Mount Carmel College of Nursing

127 S. Davis Ave.

234-5800, (800) 556-6942; mccn.edu

Ohio Dominican University

1216 Sunbury Rd.

251-4500; www.ohiodominican.edu

Ohio State University

Office of Continuing Education

224 Mount Hall, 1050 Carmack Rd.

292-8860; osu.edu

Ohio Wesleyan University

61 S. Sandusky St., Delaware

(740) 368-2000, (800) 922-8953; owu.edu

Otterbein College

One Otterbein College, Westerville

890-3000; www.otterbein.edu

Kristin Campbell is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the May 2009 issue.