With layoffs still in the news and "nonstandard employment" -- temping, for example, or part-time work -- the fastest-growing segment of the economy, there's no shortage of adults looking to change careers. To find the best path for you, think through your needs and wants and consider the ways a community college can help.
U.S. News asked deans and workforce training leaders at four community colleges for career-changer do's and don'ts.
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Do a self-assessment online: Many community colleges offer this, usually for free. Even if you know what you want to do, it's useful to gauge your skills, interests and background, says Jeff Hayden, vice president of business and community services at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts.
A computer-based appraisal can keep you from chasing a dream you don't have the skills, drive or time for, he says -- and remind you of aptitudes, such as customer service, communications and problem-solving, that employers prize.
Don't stop at salary estimates: An estimate or average doesn't necessarily reflect local salaries, especially in rural areas, several experts warn. For a more realistic picture, talk to instructors who know the field or people doing those jobs locally, says Michael Fisher, an instructional dean at Central Oregon Community College.
Also, "you don't always walk into a job and get the benefits right away, especially in technical fields," Fisher says. Benefits -- or their lack -- make a big difference in the income package.
Do consider needs beyond income: Are you caring for children or elderly relatives? Certain fields require odd hours, shift work and holiday labor, says Hayden, which may not be compatible with duties at home.
Love the outdoors? Maybe this work would have you sit too much. Are you an introvert? Real estate or software sales might not be for you. Can you handle the physical demands of firefighting or nursing? A career counselor can walk you through any field, says Craig Jbara, vice president of strategic business and community development at Michigan's Kalamazoo Valley Community College -- before you pay a cent or enroll in a class.
Don't forget the cost: One factor is financial aid. The application is easier for adults than teens because adults don't have to prove they're independent, says Ann Lyn Hall, executive director of Central New Mexico Community College's Connect Services, which helps students with academic planning, financial coaching and other areas. If you've been laid off since filing taxes, college financial aid offices can adjust the form to show need. Loans and scholarships may be possible, too.
Another factor is how long you'll train. Out of work? Consider a boot camp or certificate program that will get you in and out in weeks or months, not years. For instance, Central New Mexico's full-time, 10-week computer coding boot camp results in jobs averaging $44,000 locally or $87,000 in cities like San Francisco, according to the school. Other programs, like Kalamazoo Valley's patient-care academy for certified nursing assistants, run evenings and weekends so working people can learn.
Do ask about credit for prior learning: There's a national movement to help incoming students put specific skills they've learned in previous jobs, including military service, toward school credit, says Hall.
Maybe you're licensed as an EMT or you've passed years of industry standard exams in computer programming. A community college adviser may be able to help you convert that experience to college credit. "Not all institutions are granting credit for prior learning, but many are," she says.
Don't neglect your heart: "If you don't love this new job, if you aren't driven to do this, are you going to be right back here in two years despite the salary?" asks Fisher.
If you need income now, dreams take a backseat, he says -- "sorry to say." Otherwise, think also of what will make you feel fulfilled and connected, what will help you give back. A second -- or third -- career is a chance to explore what you want to do in a way you couldn't or wouldn't before.
Again, talking with a counselor or taking an assessment can help map the right path. "What'll make you happy and engaged and challenged -- that's sustainable," Jbara says. "Just money without passion is kind of shallow."
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Do ask about outcomes. Community colleges focus heavily on job training and placement. "We work closely with local employers to build customized training programs for local jobs," says Jbara. "We are demand driven."
Nonetheless, experts agree, it's your right to ask how many graduates find jobs and how far those are from home. What's the long-term outlook for this field? Which employers are hiring?
"We at community colleges only offer educational pathways that lead to good jobs," Hall says. "That's our whole mission."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips, news and more in the U.S. News Paying for Community College center.