Do you need more skills and training for the workplace but don’t have the time or means to earn a college degree? Many colleges and universities offer shorter-term, targeted education through their continuing and professional education departments.

Market-driven, often industry-specific, and highly competitive, these programs specialize in education you can use.

After doing some research, Toby Miller, 44, found an IT certificate program close to home at Southern Polytechnic State University’s Continuing Education Center in Marietta. No stranger to fitting an education around a work schedule, Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Georgia State University in 2002 while he was enlisted in the Army and, afterward, serving in the Georgia National Guard.

Amidst deployments, Miller has worked as a registrar for the Institute for Professionals in Taxation for 15 years. Recently, the nonprofit organization asked him if he’d like to assume more information technology duties.

“Of course I said yes. The more you know, the better, and I appreciated their wanting to invest in me, but I knew I needed new skills,” Miller said.

He enrolled in the basic fundamentals of internet technology certificate program at SPSU.

“There were a lot of online programs, but I preferred being in class with a teacher and getting hands-on experience,” he said.

Miller has completed three of the 10 required courses and is already working on the company’s website and helping maintain its communication systems. The Institute for Professionals in Taxation is paying for tuition and books.

“One of the advantages of this program is that I can apply the certificate courses toward a bachelor’s degree if I choose to pursue it. Earning the certificate will help me see which bachelor’s degree would be the best fit,” Miller said. “In the meantime, I’m having fun learning and putting my skills to use immediately.”

SPSU’s continuing education programs are closely tied to the university’s academic mission. The school offers various technology certificates (AutoCAD, Cisco, Oracle, etc.) as well as business programs such as project management and Six Sigma.

“We develop high-quality, in-depth courses that cover all the bases for career changers and workers who need additional skills to advance in their job or succeed in the marketplace,” said Denise Stover, director of SPSU’s Continuing Education Center. “There is an even greater need for these programs today. In lean times, training is one of the first things companies cut from their budgets, but people need to stay current with their skills.”

By developing shorter-term noncredit programs, continuing education departments have the flexibility to deliver directly to market needs. One example is SPSU’s health information technology certificate program.

“We saw a tremendous need for these skills as health care organizations were required to move to electronic medical records,” Stover said. “Since all our programs require project work or passing an exam to earn the certification, employers value the merit of these programs strongly.”

Last year, SPSU started a Fast Track to Employment Program to help job seekers and career changers succeed in the workplace. Instructors teach students about Internet tools (like LinkedIn), résumé writing, interviewing and networking. Some classes are free and other seminars and workshops are available at a minimal cost.

What Stover likes about the fast track program is that it serves the community and, like most continuing education programs, it produces quick results.

“People who didn’t think they were employable get new skills and find jobs. Others attain goals that they’ve been reaching for a long time. It’s so gratifying,” she said.

No longer a well-kept secret

Shirley Chesley, program developer, Professional and Personal Development for the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education at Gwinnett Campus, knows when a program is successful.

The slots fill repeatedly — like the Spanish/English and Korean/English medical interpreter certificates or the professional gerontology program for people who work with the elderly population. Other examples are the paralegal and the event meeting and management programs that have been popular for 13 years.

Once a well-kept secret, UGA’s Gwinnett campus in Lawrenceville has become increasingly well-known through marketing and word-of-mouth endorsements from satisfied students, Chesley said.

“Customer service is very dear to us. If you don’t treat students as adult learners and help them meet their long-term goals, then your programs will have no benefit,” Chesley said.

It’s also important to change with the market. Some newly developed programs include web analytics and search engine marketing; certificate management accountant test preparation; agile project management; coaching skills for managers; and a Lean Six Sigma green belt program for health care workers.

The role of continuing education is increasing as businesses and organizations are looking for workers who have the hard and soft skill sets to hit the ground running, said Denise Logan, department head, Professional and Personal Development for the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education.

“One way our programs differ from academic programs is that they are more focused on applications and directly tied to market needs. Academic courses are more theory and research-focused, but in either case you’ll be getting the credibility of the UGA name and reputation,” Logan said.

In an age of increasing competition and choices in continuing education, evaluating the quality of the institution and the provider are important. Using key words in online searches related to the topic you’re seeking should bring up multiple schools and programs, Logan said.

“Anybody can write an enticing overall description. Look at the learning objectives, course work and outcomes,” Logan said. “Ask yourself what you want from this program. Drill down to see who’s teaching it and his credentials and experience. Call and ask questions. If you don’t get the answers you need or want, go in a different direction. This is your continuing education, so it’s important that you get what you want out of it.”