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Thinking of Changing Careers?

How to Learn New Job Skills for Free (or Close to It)

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by Jean Chatzky

Work
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What’s the biggest roadblock between you and your dream job? According to research from USA Today and Life Reimagined, money tops the list and a lack of training comes not too far behind it. Combined, the two prevent a great many people from changing careers. But not Liz Beigle-Bryant.

After getting laid off from her $18-an-hour administrative job with Microsoft, at age 55, Beigle-Bryant decided to learn coding for a Microsoft database management system. But at a cost of $3,000, the formal Microsoft training was more than she could afford. So instead she turned to Codecademy, a free educational website, to learn the same skills.

See also: 10 Careers Worth Going Back to School

The results have been promising. “Right after I was laid off, I got a six-month vendor job migrating an HTML website to SharePoint, Microsoft’s document management platform, and that was a direct result of [my time on] Codecademy,” says Beigle-Bryant. Now she’s on the hunt for a full-time coding position.

As Beigle-Bryant found out, there are a great many ways to acquire your next skill on the cheap—and sometimes, even, for free. In fact, says Brian Kurth, founder of career-advisory service PivotPlanet, since the Great Recession, free has become the price point that many people are demanding. “Fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for career transition, career advancement or business startup advice,” Kurth says. So where should you turn if your skill set needs a brush-up?

”...there are a great many ways to acquire your next skill on the cheap—and sometimes, even, for free.”

Take a free or low-cost college class. Coursera and edX both offer college courses from schools including Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, University of Michigan, Duke University, Princeton University and the list goes on. And you can take them informally for free. However, if you want to get your papers graded and a course certificate, then you’ll pay anywhere from $29 to $99 a class on Coursera and $25 to $150 on edX. A 2015 study published in Harvard Business Review found that over half of Coursera students (52 percent) were there for career benefits, either to improve their current job or find a new one (the other half were studying just for fun) and that one-third of these “career builders” found some sort of tangible career benefit—like a promotion, a raise or a new job—as a result.

Take—or teach—a skills-based class. In addition to college style courses, there are a wealth of online courses that can teach you specific skills—anything from data analysis with Excel, successful negotiation techniques or effective email marketing and logo design. At Skillshare.com, for example, there are over 4,000 courses accessible for a monthly fee of $10 (or a discount of $8/month if you pay for one year, $6/month if you pay for two.) There’s also a three-month trial for 99 cents total that gives you unlimited access to more than 500 of the courses the site offers (for the other 4,000 you need to pay the monthly fee). Udemy.com, which offers 40,000 courses ranging in price from free to about $50 a piece, has courses in many of the same areas.

And note: If you’re looking to supplement your course-taking efforts, you might want to do it by teaching your own skills to others. On Skillshare, for example, you can create bite-sized video content of you teaching your skill, upload it to platform and start earning revenue after the first 25 students enroll. Skillshare operates by splitting revenue 50-50 with the teachers. “Teachers make anywhere from about $300 to $2,000 a month in passive income,” says spokeswoman Nicole Kamra. By that she means that once you create your video you can sit back and earn money without doing any additional work. And if you’re looking for courses in a specific discipline, it’s always worth checking websites or trade groups devoted to your industry. For instance Media Bistro, a website for journalists and public relations professionals, has started offering short online courses in topics such as copywriting and email marketing for $49 to $129.

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Get an apprenticeship—at any age. President Barack Obama and the Department of Labor (DOL) are awarding $175 million in American Apprenticeship Grants to 46 public-private partnerships to boost the number of registered apprentices in the U.S. to 750,000 by 2019. Think apprenticeship and you probably think Downton Abbey (downstairs, of course) or a fresh-out-of-high-schooler training to be a plumber or electrician. The field is much broader than that. Today available apprenticeship occupations on the DOL website include dental hygienist, gem cutter and funeral director. As with traditional apprenticeships, you earn a modest starting salary while in training, and then receive a boost in pay once you’re proficient or certified. The average age of apprentices is now 28 and “the jobs are going to people of all ages,” says Eric Seleznow, deputy assistant secretary for employment and training with the U.S. Department of Labor. A program for Zurich Insurance claims representatives, for example, pulled in people from age 18 to age 50, and it’s not the only one. “A lot of programs are looking for talent first, age second,” he says. (On the other hand, if you see a program recruiting from a high school, it’s a pretty clear signal that they want younger talent.) For more information, search for your state’s workforce website or visit one of the 2,500 American Jobs Centers nationwide. You can find them at careeronestop.org.

See also: Certificates That Can Launch Bright New Careers

Find a mentor. Sometimes there’s nothing like a little one-on-one handholding to give you the skills you need next. There are several places to look. First, try SCORE.org, which links aspiring entrepreneurs with business mentors in their field and locale. Second, contact your college or university. Go to your school’s website and click on alumni. You’ll find tabs that say things like “learn and network.” Then look for a LinkedIn group started by graduates of your school. Why the emphasis on alums? “It’s the feel-good factor,” says Kurth, also the founder of Revere Software, which provides a private-labeled platform that universities use for alumni mentorship and other interactions. When someone learns you walked the same college green they did, they want to lend a hand. There are also mentors available through the small-business community. According to AARP, 15 percent of people age 45 to 74 work for themselves and another 13 percent would like to transition to self-employment in the near future. The Small Business Association has a list of resources for connecting with mentors via government-sponsored organizations (like the Women’s Business Network and SCORE), trade associations and government contractors. You’ll find it here.

Read. Skills aren’t necessarily something you need to spend a lifetime in the classroom to learn; you can build a solid working knowledge of many new endeavors simply by reading old-fashioned books and subscribing to publications devoted to your area of interest. Go to the library or browse bookstores (online and offline) and newsstands. To dig a little deeper, try taking a one-on-one tutorial through QuickBooks.com.

Volunteer in your new field. Instead of volunteering for a project that makes use of your current talents and experience, offer your services for a volunteer experience that will allow you to learn and practice new skills. For example, you could become a trained tax-aid through the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program (offered in conjunction with the IRS). Or, if you’re passionate about early childhood education, you could volunteer at an organization like Jumpstart, which trains you to teach language and literacy skills to preschool children in low-income neighborhoods. “As you’re looking for volunteer opportunities, you should vet them and try to see if the organization you’re serving offers any training or best practices for becoming a mentor, tutor or a particular kind of coach,” says Marci Alboher, a vice president at Encore.org, a nonprofit that taps the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve the world. “And since you’ll be going through training—and because you’ll be using the actual skills—it is the best way to test-drive to see if it could be a new line of work for you.” Another option, suggested by prominent career consultant and Life Reimagined expert Rich Feller: Get appointed to a community, government or service board to expand your social capital, connect your skills to current issues and demonstrate your value to peers who have contacts. Volunteer boards are intensive labs to update and test your skills on real-time issues. Also, Feller says, you can research an organization’s needs (what problems are they trying to solve?) for free online. Then prepare a written proposal about how you can commit a certain amount of hours or weeks as a free consultant.

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Get your company to pay. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, in 2014 more than half of companies offered tuition assistance. That number was down a little from the last time it was measured (in 2012) but it’s still significant, and it benefits the company as well as the employee: A recent study of Cigna employees showed that for each $1 invested in tuition reimbursement the company’s bottom line improved by $1.29. You don’t necessarily have to be enrolled in a degree or certificate program in order to qualify for tuition assistance; call your benefits manager and ask what’s available. If you work for a small company, ask your supervisor or the head of the company directly. (My employees have on occasion asked for training in things they wanted to learn—in part for the job, in part for themselves—and when I’ve been able to, I’ve helped. While your small company is probably not going to pay for your MBA, a course or two may be in the realm of possibility.) I hate clichés but this one bears repeating: It never hurts to ask.

Reach out to local incubators/accelerators. Finally, you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to be near a local startup incubator or accelerator program. (Never heard of these? They are organizations that help startup companies get their ideas off the ground by providing mentoring, contacts and, sometimes, capital and infrastructure.) Understand that these are rigorous programs that can require 100 percent of your time, energy and focus while you’re in them and that the application process can be daunting as well. As you search for nearby incubators —Google the words “incubator” or “accelerator” and your city and state or check this state-by-state listing—carefully research what they specialize in, talk to alumni about what they got out of the program and how to craft your pitch and make sure all the members of your team are in sync with this idea.

Keep in mind, as you ponder which courses will make you most marketable, that the payoff you’ll get from taking these courses will go way beyond learning new skills. Beigle-Bryant, who turns 59 in July, says she continues to encounter ageism in the workplace, and that her time on Codecademy has done more than improve her technical knowledge; it also gives her confidence. “The biggest takeaway for me is how much better it made me feel as a person to go out in the job market again,” she says. “It gave me a sense that I was doing things that were more respected. It gave me a sense of taking control of my own life.”

With Kelly Hultgren