The dramatic shift in employment patterns in the past decade, and particularly in the past five years, has dealt a blow to the American workforce. The development of the Internet, particularly high-speed Internet, World Trade Organization treaties, and the explosion of container shipping are only three of the many factors which have resulted in millions of jobs, including highly paid, skilled jobs, being exported to countries from Mexico to India and China. As American workers have seen their jobs disappear to outsourcing, many have responded by going back to college, either for individual professional development courses or for degrees in a new field.
Even as computer-related positions disappear to foreign programmers and graphic designers, many U.S. workers are finding they can fight back. Programmers, website developers, and graphic artists have discovered that, with up-to-date knowledge of software and hardware and a little business sense, they can contract their skills to a number of companies more than willing to hire a local worker in exchange for the chance to forgo business expenses involved in keeping a worker on the payroll: income and social security taxes, unemployment compensation, holiday and vacation pay, health insurance benefits. This silver lining in the outsourcing cloud has kept computer and business classes filled at community colleges and vocational schools, many of whom are seeing a sharp spike in enrollment among older students in their continuing education programs.
Other workers are changing careers entirely, opting for fields that can’t be outsourced. Jobs that require a warm body and a pair of hands onsite, like broadcast communications, nursing, and medical technician positions, make sense to an increasing number of students; and both health-related industries and communications are growing while other industry sectors are shrinking in their need for local employees.
Even workers whose jobs are safe for the moment are exploring continuing education in increasing numbers. Employees who have survived one or more company downsizings, for instance, often find themselves taking on more responsibilities, and need to update their professional skills in order to survive. Others recognize that today’s work environment demands much more flexibility, and decide to be proactive in developing skills that may protect their jobs in the future.
Perhaps the only certainty in an uncertain world is that things will continue to change. That includes the demands of the workplace, and employees will have to be able to adapt quickly and skillfully to these changes. It’s a good bet that continuing professional education is going to be an ongoing part of American workers’ defense in protecting their livelihoods.