How to gain a Qualification that gives enormous Value and Satisfaction in a Career

 By Steve Mackay

Would you invest $60,000 in a bank that gave you, not a 20% return on your money, but -20%? Oddly enough many people do. With the lure of a job many enrol in qualifications of dubious repute. It is increasingly evident that higher education qualifications are delivering neither value nor jobs and therefore a zero return of investment. The result is unnecessary hardship for the unsuspecting student.
It is beyond question that university degrees can result in extraordinary financial dividends, but for many student-investors significant losses result. The current rapid expansion of private colleges, frequently failing to deliver on the promises of job opportunities, is also to blame. In addition, governments around the world have been vigorously cost cutting at traditional universities and colleges. The burden is inevitably transferred to students who are left with significant loans, often without the anticipated career which matches the qualifications gained.
It seems, however, that qualifications in the engineering and technology fields robustly provide excellent career opportunities and are generally lower in risk (from the Engineering Institute of Technology, for example) . Furthermore, solid research shows that this is not specifically dependent on the college or university attended.
Current research into qualifications and jobs; looking specifically at careers in engineering and technology is considered. An overview is then provided on the prevailing attitudes of students and employers to higher education. Online learning is touched upon, followed by a list of enviable and useful skills and finally why thinking as an entrepreneur is important.
What Current Research Says
For those aged 25-32 and working full time, on average it is possible to earn approximately $17,500 more per annum, compared with their peers who moved into the workforce directly from school (Pew Research Center). Some diplomas and degrees, however, are prohibitively expensive ($60,000 per annum for a four year degree). This cost is exacerbated by the loss of earnings during the study period.
Recent research in the USA (from Payscale) has confirmed what many have suspected. The financial returns of many institutions differ dramatically. For example, in the US, the range is significant; the University of Virginia shows a wonderful 17.6% return, but Shaw University a -10% return. This is calculated after taking into account the equivalent earnings of a high school graduate and the cost of the degree program. Sadly, although the cost to students has risen dramatically over the past few decades, graduate salaries have remained unequivocally flat.
Engineering Qualifications generally result in guaranteed Work and a good Income
There are unemployed engineering graduates (often from prestigious institutions), but the data clearly reveals that students who complete qualifications in the various fields of engineering embark on a low risk path. Research from Payscale has shown that an engineering graduate from the University of California (Berkeley) can be up to $1.1m better off after 20 years. Even the least lucrative engineering courses are shown to generate a 20% return of over $500,000, during the same period of time.
In short, it seems that a student would have few regrets if a STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) was considered, even for a short stint. It is important, however, to focus on an applied STEM career. Someone who has gained a pure Mathematics (or Physics) degree, for example, may find employment difficult and remain limited to work in academia.
Some good advice, as an aside: To reduce financial risk when undertaking an education, work alongside study is prudent. This can be tough; but is achievable by focussing on the goal; a financially rewarding career. To ensure this outcome it is wise to be flexible when considering positions.
Interestingly, in a world riddled with fraudulent colleges, it is unusual to find a diploma mill offering engineering courses. Generally, these institutions remain relatively sound.
The aim here is not to discredit liberal education in Arts and Humanities. These disciplines, when taught well, hone critical thinking and provide graduates with the skills to communicate with clarity and vigour. It is merely that the research into various higher education courses indicates that the economic value of these, in terms of job outcomes, remains lower than in STEM education.
Consider a Vocation
Recently, Barack Obama, pointed out, rightly enough, that “folks can make a lot more” by learning a trade “than they might with an art history degree”.

In the USA alone, it is estimated that over four million jobs remain vacant as the hopeful candidates do not have the skills employers want. These skills and trades are often spurned by students who consider them dirty, unsafe or boring and ‘uncool’.
Furthermore, the cost of university education has risen (at least in the USA), by almost five times the rate of inflation since 1983. A vocational pathway, on the other hand, can offer a considerably cheaper and lower risk career option. Alternatively, a vocational qualification followed up a little later by a degree or diploma is considered a financially secure path to follow.
The Attitude of Students and Employers to Higher Education
In simple terms there are three reasons to get a degree, diploma or certificate. The first one is obvious; to gain the requisite skills to add value to a job and to increase the productivity of the organisation. The second reason is to gain the credentials which employers recognise as a signal that a certain skill set exists, making the candidate employable. Finally, the third is to establish contacts or networks which can be of assistance when job searching.
Degrees, on one hand, signal to a would-be employer of a job seeker’s level of ability and work ethic. On the other hand, however, employers generally need a proven set of skills which is why a new graduate may be overlooked. New graduates are appealing as they can be relatively cheap to employ, but to train them up to the required level is expensive and time-consuming.
Students generally go to university motivated by the better jobs available to them at the end. The learning and mastering of the material is rarely the drawcard, they want to acquire the qualification quickly and relatively painlessly. This particular demand alters supply and accounts for one of the reasons why many colleges produce such mediocre results.
Many higher education debates avoid the issue of ‘inherent interest’, when it comes to producing worthy graduates. This is a mistake. To become a successful engineer, accountant or doctor, much depends on existing skill and a person’s interests - which exist well before qualifications are embarked upon. This proficiency is also largely dependent on experience gained thereafter. The institution, therefore, is not as critical as many would think.
Employers are often dubious about students who have studied soft subjects which have little practical use in the workplace. They are also wary when job seekers have sacrificed little to attain a qualification as this is often accompanied by a lack of humility and a sense of entitlement. On the other hand, employers are aware that the more prestigious universities attract the brightest and highest achievers; accounting for the focus of their recruitment efforts.
It should be noted, however, that universities do not have the agility to mirror the job market - they are slow-moving beasts, unwilling to change. It is not uncommon for graduates to be produced, en masse, for jobs that do not exist. A student should consider career counselling with someone who understands trends in the job market before enrolling in a course of study.
The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Online Learning
There is a vast amount of free learning material available on the internet for the motivated student to work through. The trait; motivation, however, is somewhat lacking in human nature and accounts for the huge attrition rates in online education. Despite this, the ability to acquire knowledge has never been simpler or indeed cheaper. Furthermore, the offerings online are largely very good; indeed better than attending theoretical lectures with limited interaction.
The quality of online education does vary considerably, however, and explains some of the higher attrition rates (90% at some of the more dubious colleges). The wary student is better off. Establishing exactly how the courses are conducted is crucial. If materials are simply placed on the web for self-paced working, for example, strong self-motivation is essential.
Colleges, such as the Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT), on the other hand, provide enormous support to students; with regular, interactive, tutorial-based sessions. This ensure that students are assisted throughout their courses to completion, with correspondingly very low attrition rates. 
A Wish List of Good Skills
For the highly motivated - a list of useful skills and knowledge for success in today’s world:
  • Fluency in English, one European language and Mandarin
  • Expertise in statistics and an ability to read data
  • Familiarity with literature in the areas of science, engineering and technology
  • A bachelor degree in a general STEM discipline
  • The ability to read critically from the internet and elsewhere
  • The ability to mine data using Google and other internet sites
  • Skill in writing simple algorithms ranging from Excel macros to HTML5
  • Excellent writing and communication skills
  • Superb ability in working with major software packages (such as MS Office/Accountancy MYOB/Presentation software and the Adobe suite)
  • A track record in starting (and failing in) at least one business
  • The ethical, polite, considerate and thoughtful interaction with others
  • Passion for ongoing learning and the refining of skills
Create Your Own Job and Company
Those who go to college tend to be more motivated, persistent and intelligent than non-graduates and this can often account for their success. However, one should pause and think of those entrepreneurs who achieved enormous heights without completing university degrees. Consider Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Steve Jobs (Apple), for example. It follows then, that for smart and talented people it does not particularly matter whether or not they embark on post-school study, but if they do, where they choose to study is neither here not there. These individuals tend to bubble to the surface of success. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, careful consideration of our career direction and the education most likely to make it happen is well worthwhile.
With the overwhelming focus on job hunting the notion of self-employment is sorely neglected. The instinct in all new adults setting out into the world should be to start something for themselves, rather than merely looking for jobs. This is not only beneficial to an economy which thrives on growth and diversity, but also goes some way to protecting the entrepreneur from job instability, including company closures and retrenchments. The concepts of entrepreneurship and business need to be embedded in us all from a young age. A higher education would then merely bolster the entrepreneurial qualities nurtured through childhood and school.
Strategies to consider
When students leave school, and before the next phase in their lives begin, a determined soul-search is recommended; to establish inherent talents, skills and aspirations. This will ensure that the direction embarked upon has been decided with some care. It is, however, important not to fear failure.
Ultimately, it is vital to find something which is both enjoyable and that can be done well. The choice may not involve university or college, but a trade instead. The challenge is to weigh up the economic rewards with one’s passions and interests.
Motivation, persistence and an ambition to make a success of one’s life and career is an important starting point. A proposed study route needs to be carefully considered and should include research into the course topic, college and teaching methodology. It is also a mistake to believe that education is a brief interlude of a few years in a lifetime. With the rapid pace of change in technology and in order to maximise the contribution to oneself and one’s community, it is vital to consider education as a life-long pursuit.
  • Is college worth it? (April 3rd, 2014). The Economist. Retrieved April 5, 2014 from
  • Go your own way: Tips on how to make higher education cheaper
  • (Jan 18th, 2014). The Economist. Retrieved April 5, 2014 from The Economist