Course of Action

Devashish Chakravarty        Print Edition: May 2012

After serving the Indian Army for 17 years, a Major goes to business school for an MBA programme, where he's surprised to find that his oldest colleague, in a population dominated by 23-year-old engineers, is a retired IG of Police. Seven years later, his wife retires from teaching to study philosophy, becoming part of a class where a 72-year-old priest and his project partner, a 27-year-old mother of two, debate influence of Greek literature.

Such scenarios are becoming common in today's educational institutions as needs and choices triumph over stereotypes on the appropriate age to attend 'school'.

In the US, college admissions went up in 2009 after the economy tanked. For the newly unemployed, the mantra was - learn skills, become employable. For fresh graduates, it made sense to delay entering the workforce to invest in a post-graduate degree in the hope that the economy would recover.

So, why should you seek additional qualifications? The reasons could range from becoming eligible for a promotion, to changing your line of work or just to pursue an interest. Whatever the reason, calculate the return on investment of this decision.

The benefit is either the certification or the skills you learn. For someone pursuing an interest or the self-employed looking to expand, acquiring knowledge is most important. They have a greater choice in what to study, at what pace and the amount of time they can spare.

The key is to choose a course that teaches you the skills that you need. For the professional seeking advancement or a switch in career, the certification often matters more than the actual knowledge acquired.

From an employer's perspective, recognisable certifications are a proxy for ability and future performance when choosing a candidate. Thus, a full-time course is more valuable than part-time, which in turn is better than distance education or online courses. You may need to choose between a specialised course and a general one (typically management related) as well.

For the former, quantify the benefits by calculating the lifetime difference in earnings of professionals in your industry with and without the qualification.

For management programs, it is more complicated on account of the choices available - two-year MBA, one-year executive MBA and a host of diplomas and part-time courses. Since MBA degrees are not standardised, a certificate from a renowned institute is most valuable.

If you want a promotion, shorter sponsored courses may be adequate while full-time programmes are better for switching industries. Quantify the expected benefits of your choice of institute and program by benchmarking your costs against the average gains for people who chose similar paths.

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Factor in the macro-economic scenario as what worked ten years back may not work now. If the benefits seem worth the effort, weigh them against the costs.

For a full-time MBA, add the cost of tuition, relocation, salary lost for the period, work experience that would have counted towards promotion, pension and gratuity and a real tangible risk of not getting the right job or expected increase in earning on returning.

Many leading Indian B-schools failed to get 100 per cent placement in 2012. So find out if your present employer will sponsor it as part of HR retention policies.

You still have living costs to consider. How long will it take to payback the debt and is it worth it? A Harvard Business School degree might not be as there is dollar cost involved. The payback period will be about four years if you are lucky to get a top job in the US. Much longer if the only jobs open to you are in India.

Do not ignore non-economic components either. A doctor with an MBA might earn a multiple of his earlier salary due to demand-supply mismatch but a doctor with a post-graduate professional qualification may be more respected among peers. Seeking a qualification is also a way of avoiding work in a socially acceptable manner.

It is not an easy path though. You will miss the luxury of routine and on-demand leave and vacations when you enroll in a serious course of study.

Whatever your work experience, there is something of value in education. Being an older student can be rewarding. You are serious and more committed. The professors, your new friends and the expanded network value your experience and inputs. Once the cost-benefit analysis is worked out in your favour, step out of your comfort zone and go for it


WHAT'S THE BEST OPTION?
(For your work experience)

0-5 Years: What are you waiting for? The two-year MBA is the one for you if you want a management degree. Pick the options that give the highest returns in your sector. The education and opportunity costs that seem large now, will be a rounding error of your lifetime earnings.

5-10 Years:
It is a toss up between a full-time one-year and a two-year MBA. If you are returning to the same industry, the former is sufficient for promotions. Talk to people to validate the history of the particular programme in meeting similar aspirations.

10-15 Years: A two-year post grad may not be worth the opportunity cost unless money is plentiful and it is abroad, where average work experience is higher. Consider shorter management courses of 3-6 months or a year, ideally sponsored by your company.

15-25 Years: Use a local one-year MBA to switch industries and a weekend executive one to upgrade your pay. Take active interest in company-sponsored MDPs (management development programmes) and leadership programmes. Apart from these, spending too much time away from your career and job may come with a prohibitive cost.

25-40 Years: Qualifications are no more the goal. Focus on specific skill sets and exposure to remain at the helm. Workshops on leadership, strategic management and new practices and technology will keep you updated and in command of your career.


The writer is CEO, Quetzal Verify, an HR solutions company started by four IIM-Ahmedabad graduates.

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