Jessica Santoro – master's degree in hand and firmly ensconced in a career in foster care and adoptions – was looking for something new. "Doing therapy and social work can be emotionally taxing," she said. "It was time for a change."
She found what she wanted through UCI Extension, joining a growing number of mid-career professionals who are turning to specialized certificates to hone their skills, stay on top of their trade or prepare for something new altogether.
Santoro, a 41-year-old Orange County resident, is now working for a Newport Beach law firm after completing her paralegal certificate program. And she couldn't be happier. "It was definitely scary at the time, because you spend so much time and money preparing for a career that you end up leaving after so many years. But it was a perfect move for me."
Kirwan Rockefeller, an academic advisor and career coach at UCI Extension, said certificate programs offer a number of benefits for anyone looking to advance a career or find a new path. Here's a handful of the most significant.
Cutting-edge knowledge. Degree programs provide a solid grounding and a wealth of information through a time-tested curriculum, but the lessons often don't change much over the years. "Professional development certificates offered through University Extension programs are based upon up-to-date information and developments," said Rockefeller.
The Agile Project Management and Six Sigma Lean certificate programs at UCI Extension are good examples. Agile management is a method of developing products by dividing responsibility among team members. It focuses on hitting certain milestones, enabling project managers to react quickly to unexpected delays or roadblocks.
Six Sigma Lean is a business improvement method that makes the most out of statistical analysis, identifying and eliminating inefficiencies, to create maximum productivity. Leaders in today's organizations are turning to the Six Sigma Lean Green and Black Belt training to ensure their competitive edge, improve service and build the skill base needed to improve performance.
Practical applications. Certificate programs offer best practices and teach the most relevant, practical skills. "They add value to your portfolio," Rockefeller said. "They offer the skills and tools that someone could use relatively immediately on the job." For example, Santoro picked up technology skills that proved invaluable at her new job as a paralegal.
Time. Earning a degree can take four years or more of full-time study. Not so much with a certificate through an Extension program. "They are designed specifically for the working adult, an adult who may have a family but can still go to school and complete a program in a year or even less, depending on the individual and the program."
Affordability. You probably don't have to take out a student loan or second mortgage to pay the cost of a typical certificate program, which runs roughly from $5,000 to $8,000 at UCI Extension. "It's a far more affordable option than a master's degree," Rockefeller said.
Certificates are now being offered in long-overlooked but increasingly vital areas such as soft skills including problem solving, teamwork, communication and time management, which employers say are sorely lacking in many college graduates.
"With so many businesses today working with virtual teams that meet and conduct so much of their work online, you really need to learn the soft skills like cultural sensitivity, how to work in a virtual team environment, communicating in a diverse and changing workforce," Rockefeller said.