AMY LINDGREN: Back to School for Millennials – making the retraining decision

Amy Lindgren

For workers in their 20s and 30s, decisions related to retraining can feel polarizing. On the one hand, recent graduates may feel “done with that” for the time being. Even eager learners can burn out on school, not to mention student debt.

That said, other millennials say they feel compelled toward additional training. These folks may have a destination in mind, such as achieving a certain degree level by a certain age. Or, they may simply feel that when it comes to education, more is better.

Whether you fit into one of these camps or find yourself in the confusing middle, if you’re a millennial, it’s important to review the training question with some regularity. These early years in your work life represent a period of rapid growth that warrants as much strategy as you can muster, and training is part of that puzzle.

To sort out your own goals related to training, try to answer these five questions:

1. Is the training program you’re considering something you definitely want to do at some point, whether that be now or later? If so, what advantage is there to waiting (if any)?

2. Is the training you’re considering an all-or-nothing proposition? For example, half of a medical degree may not be very useful, while half of a business degree will still yield advantages over no business classes at all – which makes medical school an example of “all or nothing” training, where rewards are only likely if you complete the program.

3. Is there a chance that your current (or future) employer would subsidize your tuition?

4. Speaking of employers – are you actually interested in training, or is a return to school a handy way to exit an uncomfortable work situation? If the latter, there are probably cheaper and easier ways to deal with your workplace.

5. If not now, when? Regardless of which degrees or certificates you hold now, as a millennial, you have to ask yourself: Can I expect to work decades more without additional training? Given the likely answer of “no” the true question becomes: When is the best time to add more training?

My counsel is not to retrain just to have more letters after your name. Degree attainment as a resume builder is a narrow strategy that can backfire when it comes to paying the bills.

On the other hand, age can play a role: The younger you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to leverage additional training in future pathways. As an added bonus, developing the training habit now will help you become a savvy consumer of classes, certificates, apprenticeships, degrees and any other form of education you may need to consider in the coming years.

Regardless of the form of education you undertake now or later, here are my most frequent tips for millennials who are considering this question.

-Frontload training where possible. The longer you delay training you anticipate taking anyway, the more expensive and inconvenient it will be to pursue.

-Check for tuition reimbursement. If your employer offers assistance and you’re not taking advantage, I can almost guarantee you’ll kick yourself later. Likewise, if you simply assume your employer won’t help but you don’t ask, you may be leaving money on the table.

-Slow is good. If you’re working, you’ll likely be better served by a slow, pay-as-you-go model of training for your next certificate or degree, rather than a debt-based, all-at-once program.

For example, taking one master’s class each semester for three years and funding it from your earnings or your employer’s tuition assistance is usually better than leaving work and taking a loan to complete your master’s in one year.

The difference between one year and three for completion just doesn’t justify the loss of income and added debt load for the faster program. Plus, for most master’s degrees, there’s an incremental gain with each class, in terms of knowledge attained and the ability to note the degree as “in progress” on your resume.

The exceptions to this rule would be any program requiring full intensity in order to gain mastery, such as apprenticeships in the trades or health care programs with clinical rotations. In those cases, the faster the better, since each month at school costs you money and lost income.

-Finish what you’ve started. The risk in taking the slow route is that life can interfere with your plans. If that happens with an associate’s or bachelor’s program, do everything in your power to complete the degree, even if that means changing schools. While master’s programs can pay dividends at any stage, these programs are not nearly as powerful in your career unless you complete them.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.