Crossover Careers for Technical Professionals
Chances are you know someone — even a highly skilled IT professional — who has been laid off. Or perhaps you yourself were. No doubt about it: It’s tough out there.
But rather than thinking of the competitive IT market as an obstacle, consider it an opportunity to branch out. You can leverage your current technical skills and supplement them with some education to prepare yourself for a career in a new yet related field: e-learning.
You might think it would be difficult to find any industry that’s growing today, but the e-learning market is doing just that. The 2008 Sloan Survey of Online Learning revealed that nearly 4 million college and university students were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall of 2007. And that figure does not include higher education students outside the U.S. — another growing market.
Further, the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) estimates that U.S. organizations spent a total of $134 billion on employee learning and development in 2007, and a fair amount of that money was earmarked for e-learning. Again, those numbers don’t even take into account the billions of dollars that are being spent outside the U.S.
So where are the jobs in all of this e-learning growth? To create an online course, a company must employ a whole team of professionals — typically a subject-matter expert, a technical expert and an instructional designer. The position we want to look at here is that of instructional designer. While the job has been around for many years, it is because of the current rapid growth that the position is more visible and in demand.
E-Learning and Instructional Design: Learning the Ropes
Right now, the field of instructional design includes a number of diverse job titles, including instructional designer, instructional technology specialist, e-learning developer, multimedia developer, learning design specialist, and training and learning specialist. While the titles may vary, the knowledge, skills and abilities that comprise these jobs are crucial.
When a course is being developed, the subject-matter expert, technical expert and instructional designer work together as a project team. The subject-matter expert is knowledgeable about the course content itself, which might be anything from accounting or management to chemistry. The technical expert is often someone with information technology or instructional technology skills. The instructional designer works in collaboration with the subject-matter expert to design and develop the course and often functions as the project manager for training and e-learning ventures.
Skills and Competencies
Those who have been laid off recently can tell you that experience may not make a difference in keeping your job. Employers are really interested in people who have the skills and competencies that help organizations solve genuine problems.
For example, it may be meaningless for someone to have 20 years of experience if they were 20 years of poor performance. This is especially true if that individual was a “vanilla” midlevel manager with no demonstrable skills. Many people who fit that description are out of a job today.
The new focus should not be on job titles or experience but on skills. Many job advertisements are deceptive. Job titles, in many cases, may mean little.
If you look at job announcements in the field of instructional design and e-learning, you’ll notice that no two are exactly alike.
The good news is that many people in technical professions, such as information technology, computer science and information systems, already have a number of skills that are transferable to the field of instructional design and e-learning. In fact, those who already have a technical background in computers and IT probably could learn instructional technology software applications faster than the average instructional designer.
It’s safe to say that these days, employers expect employees to perform a wider range of roles than in the past. For example, years ago, accountants were expected simply to crunch numbers. Today, it is not uncommon for organizations to require them to assist other staff in the recruitment and retention of clients.
The same is true in the field of instructional design and e-learning. Companies usually prefer that candidates have additional competencies that technical professionals may already have, such as expertise in computer networking, learning management systems (LMS), e-learning and Web site development. Additionally, if a designer also has expertise in the popular industry software applications, such as Photoshop, Captivate or Flash, he or she is even more marketable.
Skills in Demand
Right now, the instructional design and e-learning jobs with the greatest demand are the ones requiring the following skills:
- Instructional design and development skills.
- Proficiency in Flash, Captivate, Photoshop, HTML, and video and audio software.
- Graphic design skills.
- Familiarity with LMS.
- E-learning skills.
- Subject-matter expertise.
It should be noted that the technical skills mentioned don’t do much good unless they are used by someone who also has some knowledge of instructional design. Sometimes the best solution may be not to use technology at all. You shouldn’t add a Flash animation to a learning module just because you know how.
Also, keep in mind that requirements differ from employer to employer. Companies also factor in assets such as supervisory experience, management experience, knowledge of the particular industry and market demand. You might want to visit job recruitment Web sites, such as Monster.com, SimplyHired.com and USAJobs.com, to get a sense of what different employers are looking for.
Two Case Studies
Sam was an engineer by education who wanted to transition into the field of instructional design. He had no experience in the area, but he did have good IT skills, thanks to his degree.
After Sam took a few graduate courses in instructional design, he began to look for internship opportunities where he could gain experience. Since he had some marketable IT skills, several companies were willing to offer him unpaid internships. Sam used these internships as an opportunity to gain valuable experience and references for future employment.
When Sam completed his master’s degree in instructional design, these volunteer internships paid off. Despite his lack of full-time paid job experience, he had several job offers within just a few months after graduating.
Similarly, Sean was a special education teacher who was ready for a change. While he had some marketable skills as a teacher, he did not have any formal instructional design education. Yet after just five graduate courses in instructional design, Sean was able to get a job as an instructional designer. How did he do that?
The employer who hired Sean was impressed with his professional portfolio that documented his knowledge, skills and competencies. Nearly his entire portfolio included items that were developed in his graduate program. His additional education supplemented his background to the point where he was offered a job.
Education and Training
Most people don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on additional education and training. The million-dollar question then becomes, “Exactly how much education do I need to get into the instructional design and e-learning field?”
Like many important questions in our lives, the answer is, “It depends.” The following factors impact the amount of additional education you may wish to pursue:
- What education credentials you already have. Some employers will hire without a degree, others will not.
- What skills and competencies you already have.
- What experience you have in the industry, which could be anything from health care to insurance.
- What type of job you want.
So what tools do you need to make a career change? You can start by updating your resume. Functional resume formats seem to be gaining popularity. This format could list categories such as technical expertise, project management, instructional technology or management.
The current employment trend in instructional design and e-learning also emphasizes applicant portfolios. A portfolio is a collection of items, called artifacts, that document and demonstrate your professional knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies in a tangible way. A basic portfolio may include:
- A resume.
- A list of career accomplishments.
- Letters of reference.
- Copies of reports.
- Documents and electronic files.
- Multimedia presentations.
- Video and audio productions.
- Other samples of your work.
One good way to start creating items for your portfolio is to draft your top 10 career accomplishments. These can often be a great foundation for building your resume or preparing for interview questions and performance appraisals.
Ideally, your accomplishments should be specific and quantifiable. They should address business issues. Remember that employers don’t just want to hear what you did; they want to know how you can solve their problems.
Here are some examples of possible accomplishments for an e-learning developer:
- Designed an e-learning course that reduced costs by nearly 8 percent.
- Created an online assessment tool that improved data collection by 12 percent.
- Conducted a needs analysis for a $450,000 project.
- Acted as project manager for a job serving 275 customers.
- Created a tool that increased employee performance by more than 9 percent.
Your Game Plan
The field of instructional design and e-learning is very broad. Before you invest a lot of time and effort, investigate if this field is really for you.
Conduct some brief informational interviews with people in the industry. Find out how they ended up where they are. What sort of background, education and previous experience do they have? What do they do on a daily basis? What do they like about the field? What do they dislike? What are the opportunities and challenges in the profession? What advice do they have for someone trying to get into the field?
Then, attend a local professional association meeting. The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) is a good source of information about the profession. In addition to the national chapter, there are local chapters nationwide. Look up a local chapter by visiting www.astd.org.
The most important thing is to take action now. Don’t wait for things to happen to you. Take control of your career by getting starting today.
Gregory R. Williams, Ed.D., is director of the ISD-training systems graduate program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.