Money & Career

How to get ahead at work

Lifelong learning can help you land a promotion and make you better at your job -- or ready for the next one.

1. Decide what your goals are

Start by asking yourself how you want your working life to change. Do you want to earn more money at your current job, or are you looking for a new career? “Most people upgrade their skills to get specialized training, to become more marketable or to make sure they have current industry knowledge,” says Tracey Taylor-O’Reilly, the director of the Centre for Continuing Education at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Thinking about where you want to go will help you decide on your course of action.

2. Do your research
If you’re a professional or a unionized worker, your association or local may be able to help spell out what the requirements are for advancement. If you work in a field without an association, you’ll have to gather this information yourself. Chat up your colleagues about their paths or ask your company’s human-resources department about the requirements of your dream job. Check in with a mentor, if you have one; if not, find someone with the job you want and ask her for an informational interview, which can be as simple as a 15-minute talk over coffee about her experiences.
When Veronica Barnes, a Toronto-area social worker, decided to fulfill her dream of becoming an addictions counsellor two years ago, she started by calling potential employers. She confirmed that she would need a diploma or certificate on top of her experience as a social worker and asked which schools they preferred hiring from. This knowledge helped her decide on her next step: education.

3. Go back to school…
Continuing education is not just about philosophy seminars and lessons in classical-music appreciation. Universities and colleges have dozens of courses tailored to full-time workers, from one-time leadership seminars to year-long certificates or diplomas, undergrad degrees at night and even online learning. More than 10 percent of Canadian internet users have taken distance-learning courses in the past year, perhaps because they’re now more like regular classes, often including live chats, online quizzes and interactive content. They’re a great option if you live far from a university or work odd hours; but keep in mind that online students often don’t bond with their teachers and peers, depriving them of the valuable new network available in regular classes.
No matter how you go to school, consider getting a certificate or diploma: Statistics Canada recently found that individual courses in adult education didn’t pay off in increased wages, but certificates and diplomas did – up to 20 percent more of a jump in annual income in some cases – making schooling a worthy investment, especially since many companies will cover some of the costs of formal education. Before you sign up, ask your manager or HR if your company would support you.

4. …or learn informally
People often think they need to go back to school to get ahead, says Shirin Khamisa, founder of Careers by Design, a career-coaching service in Toronto. She often sees clients who believe earning an MBA is the next step to management. Sometimes, however, they discover the degree won’t automatically give them an edge on the job market. “Check out your assumptions: See if [a degree] will really propel you to where you want to go,” she advises.
If your research makes you think you need more experience, not more education, try looking close to home. Seek out chances to learn at work, says Lynne Palmer, the CEO of the Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations. “Do something you’ve never done before, take on new assignments, or take the lead on smaller projects.” Or look outside of work: One-day workshops and seminars offer a great chance to build your network and try something that’s not part of your job description. Meanwhile, ever-coveted leadership skills can often be developed in your community. “Seek out volunteer and board experience, through the United Way or school boards,” Palmer recommends. “Even coaching the kids’ soccer team can build those skills,” she says.

5. Reap the rewards
If your professional-development efforts are successful, you’ll soon create new opportunities for yourself. “If you continue to grow, you’ll create your career,” says Palmer. “You’ll always provide more value, and leave behind those who haven’t invested in themselves and their careers.”
Veronica Barnes certainly found that to be true: Before she’d even completed her course, she was hired as an addictions specialist. “It’s a much better job,” she says. “It pays better, and I absolutely love it. Going out every day and making a difference, watching people in the process of recovery, even just a little bit – to me, that’s wonderful.”