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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Miss the Classroom? Here's How to Keep Learning at Work

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Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

With all the YouTube tutorials, how-to articles, and infographics available for download these days, learning has never been easier.

And it's never been more critical to your career.

In a recent New York Times story, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said, "People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology." It's a bold statement, but it's become more and more apparent that lifelong learning is a key component of employability.

With your full-time job, family obligations, and, oh yes, a social life, how do you find the time to hit the books? As it turns out, there's an option for almost every lifestyle. Here are a few ways to start:

1. Enroll in Your Company's University

General Electric, Deloitte, Unilever, and Wells Fargo are among the 4,000 or so companies that have invested in their own universities to train and develop employees. Think of these corporate classrooms as in-house academies designed to help you enhance your skills and, in turn, succeed at your company. GE's curriculum includes leadership and management training, while Wells Fargo offers a series of courses designed to help its people better understand and move within the financial industry.

If you work for a large company, check in with your HR or learning and development department to see what programs are available. Of course, you may need to apply or be recommended, and some programs are designed primarily for management-level employees, but hey—it's worth the ask, right?

2. Take Advantage of Tuition Reimbursement

Looking for something off the corporate campus? As part of their benefits packages, many firms offer partial (sometimes even full!) reimbursement for courses that align with your career path. This is an especially attractive option for IT folks who need to stay up to date on the tech landscape, but it also applies to other roles: marketers who need to bone up on their social media and analytics skills; creatives seeking expertise in a new piece of software; or anyone looking for management training.

Definitely do your research here, as some employers require a GPA minimum to receive reimbursement or a commitment to stay at the company for a period of time. Again, your HR department should be your next stop for more details.

More about how to keep learning at work at Wells Fargo

3. Earn a MOOC Certificate

MOOCs—or Massive Open Online Courses—are free online versions of real classes from universities like Harvard, MIT, and Georgetown University, and they're an increasingly popular option: A 2015 survey found that in the three years prior, some 25 million people across the world had enrolled in these types of online courses. Of those, 60% were full-time workers, and according to research published in Harvard Business Review, 72% reported career benefits afterword. Clearly, there's something to this model of on-your-own-time education.

Nowadays, there's a MOOC for nearly every subject, from Data Science to Design Thinking. And while the majority of MOOCs are free to audit, a growing number of providers like Coursera and edX now offer the option to pay a small fee (usually between $30 and $150) to take the course for a "verified certificate." These certificates can be displayed on your LinkedIn profile or resume, and in a few cases, can even be used toward credit at certain universities.

4. Join a Professional Organization

Not all learning comes from books. A ton of it is stored in the brains of colleagues and peers, which is why joining a professional organization can yield big results. These forums for connection and discussion are no longer the stuffy, business-card exchanges of old. A new generation of organizations like Summit Series and Young Entrepreneur Council focus on peer development for young professionals, while national associations are adding young professional chapters to their charters. Members enjoy access to educational material, speaker series (and speaking opportunities!) as well all the social capital that comes from meeting and mingling with up-and-comers in your field. A quick web search for "young professional organization" and your industry should get you started on the right path.

5. Switch Teams, Temporarily

Not all learning has to happen in the classroom! In fact, you can learn a lot by working on a project outside your department or team. Are you a marketer? Approach an IT manager to see if your communication skills can be put to use, while you learn about the company's data challenges. Project manager? Head over to the product team and learn more about the market need that your company solves.

Sure, it takes some initiative, but challenging yourself in this way will expose you to new information, help forge relationships with subject matter experts outside your area, and give you a more comprehensive view of your organization and its goals and strategy. (And hey, you may even make a few new friends.) Of course, check with your manager and the head of the other department to make sure the work swap is kosher, but if so? Give it a whirl.

Whether you have time to enroll in an online course or just want to bounce ideas of off others in the industry, learning doesn't stop when you land your first job. Take advantage of company-offered trainings or ask a colleague to walk you through a new program they're working in—and remember, knowledge really can come from anywhere.