Learn Valuable Skills For a Great Career Without Going Into Debt

Journeys in Construction

Learn Valuable Skills For a Great Career Without Going Into Debt


Teach Children Well

Just about any endeavor that involves more than a few steps can be considered a project. Even if a person does not intend to hold the title of “project manager,” having that skill set can be valuable throughout life. Teach young people how to manage projects, whether independently or with a team.

I am a member of the Project Management Institute which is primarily a certification authority that also provides many professional resources, including courses for beginners. The Project Management Institute Educational Foundation gives no-cost project management learning and teaching resources to help bridge the skills gap among primary and secondary school students as well as the general community. These resources can help people to learn, live, and plan for the future.

Of course, learning is not just for kids. It’s something we have to do continuously. It’s important to keep updating our skills.

“You are never too old to set a new goal, or to dream a new dream.”

— C.S. Lewis

Adjust Expectations

The Foundation for Economic Education has some helpful Advice for Young Unemployed Workers. In that article, Jeffrey Tucker notes that nearly half of the unemployed people in the US are under the age of 34. Much of the article addresses misconceptions that some children have which do not serve them well in adulthood. For example;

“If you already understand this rule—that you must add more value than you take out—you now know more than vast numbers of young workers. And this gives you an advantage. While everyone else is grumbling about the workload and low pay, you can know why you are having to hustle so much and be happier for it. You are producing more for the company than you take out. Doing that consistently is the way to get ahead. In fact, it’s the key to life.”

That’s a mindset which I sort of understood when I was young, but it did not really set in until I transitioned from being an employee to being a business owner. There were times in my career when I felt underpaid, however I learned a lot from those experiences and moved on to be more fairly compensated.

“You learn from every job you have. You learn how to interact with others, how a business runs, how people think, how bosses think, and how those who succeed get ahead versus those who fail. Working is a time for learning, as much as or more than school.”

As flattering as it can be when someone compliments my skills or how proud I can be of my accomplishments, the more I learn, the more I realize that there is so much that I have yet to learn. Then after I figure something out, it changes. Being a lifetime apprentice is humbling.

Adapt to Change

For the past several years, there have usually been 5-7 million jobs open in the USA. Even at the recent low point of the US economy in 2009, there were 2.3 million jobs open. There are generally more jobs available than there are unemployed people seeking employment. Some of those jobs might be constantly advertised due to high rates of turnover in some positions at some employers. Some of the jobs might not be that fun or pay very well. Some jobs are good opportunities though, but there may be other reasons why so many of those jobs are open, such as there being a lack of qualified job seekers with the necessary skills and being in different geographical areas.

A recent report from the World Economic Forum titled The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution indicates that “in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.” They predict that approximately 65 percent of children entering primary school will end up in jobs that did not yet exist when they started kindergarten.

To get some of the best jobs requires job seekers to be adaptive, continuously learn necessary skills, and some may need to relocate to different geographical areas.

Traditional Higher-Education System is Not for Everybody

Young people are taught that the way to a rewarding career is the path from high school to college or university and so on. Of course, education is essential, but following the standard path of education may not be the best way for everybody to go. As the price for post-secondary school in the USA increases above the rate of general inflation, and many students incur massive debt, the return on investment becomes more questionable.

Data shows that people with higher degrees tend to have lower unemployment rates and earn higher median incomes than people with less documented education, however those are generalities, and there are exceptions. Anecdotally, I know a lot of people without degrees who work in construction and earn about $80K-100K (some more) per year, and I also see a lot of university graduates who earn less than $50K per year or are unemployed. Individuals can transcend the average statistics of group categories.

The traditional system of higher-education seems more financially risky and less sure to produce positive results than it may have been in previous generations. I don’t mean to diminish the value of education, but I want to encourage people to consider alternative methods of education. There are various ways that you can learn almost anything and have a fulfilling career without going into debt.

Alternative Methods for Education and Career Development

Below are a bunch of resources, some traditional and some innovative, for learning valuable career skills throughout life.


Apprenticeships, which can be more or less formal, are a tried-and-true way to gain valuable skills through a combination of book/classroom learning and experience while getting paid to work. Programs vary for different crafts or trades, and in unions or merit-based shops. Many of these programs take 3-5 years to complete a professional certification without incurring financial debt.

I started a carpentry apprenticeship when I was a teenager. Then I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do for a career, and I cannot say that I had a passion for carpentry at first, but I liked making substantial things with my hands and not being stuck in an office. There were some ups-and-downs along the way, and I didn’t always enjoy it, but I learned to work hard and the value of smart work. Eventually I came to appreciate and even enjoy it. It helped set me up for a better paying career beyond carpentry too.

Trade School

Trade school can be a way to accelerate learning a craft, but this usually comes with significant cost, especially as the class schedule might not fit with the schedule of a paying job. However, if you can afford it, there are many excellent trade schools and some basic programs can be completed in a matter of months.

It seems too good to be true, but some programs may pay for you to learn valuable skills. If you’re interested in going to trade school, check what grants and scholarships you might qualify for to help cover the cost. Some of those grants may come through the schools or from outside sources that might not be connected to a particular school.

One well-known scholarship program is run by Mike Rowe, who used to host the TV show Dirty Jobs, called the Mike Rowe Works Foundation. Among other application requirements, this program includes the S.W.E.A.T. pledge which is a collection of beliefs that outlines the importance of work ethic, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, and a positive attitude that we believe every worker can benefit from embracing it.

Source: https://www.mikeroweworks.org/sweat/


In addition to books, many libraries provide other free or low-cost services for their patrons, such as ebooks, audiobooks, videos, in-person lessons, etc. You probably have a local library funded by taxpayers, or a school library, that you can use. Even if your local library is small, they might participate in an inter-library loan system which allows them to have resources sent in from far-away libraries.

Seattle (where I live) libraries offer many online classes for learning business skills, languages, and all kinds of stuff. They come from a variety of sources, and some of them are high-quality.

If you lack a local library, consider signing up to join a library in another area. Nowadays libraries provide a lot of downloadable resources, and some will mail materials to your house too. There are some libraries that offer non-resident accounts, though most of those require a nominal registration fee for non-residents.

An alternative to traditional libraries is the website archive.org which has a decent catalog of resources that can be downloaded.


I find lots of free audio podcasts that are a convenient way to learn while I’m traveling or doing routine work that doesn’t require much thought. If you have a smartphone, you can carry so much useful and entertaining information with you wherever you go. If you’re not yet savvy about podcasts, check out this guide on How to Get Started Listening to Podcasts.

There are some video podcasts too, and also some premium podcasts that require payment. I recently bought the Project Management PrepCast to study for my Project Management Professional certification. It’s not cheap, but it’s a less costly alternative than going to in-person classes, and it saves time too. Most of the time, I watch it on my TV at home, but sometimes I watch a section on my computer during lunchtime at work, or on my phone whenever I’m stuck waiting somewhere.

Online Higher-Education

Many colleges and universities offer their study materials on the internet, some for free, some providing accredited degrees.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online courses available for anyone to enroll. MOOCs provide an affordable and flexible way to learn new skills, advance your career and deliver quality educational experiences at scale. These typically do not give diplomas or degrees, but often include the same study material that students learn from in those programs. MOOC.org is an extension of edX, a leader in online courses.

Straighter Line is a low-cost online school that provides a variety of classes which can transfer as credit to certain partner colleges and universities. This can be a good way to start college prep and cover some prerequisites before moving on to complete a degree program elsewhere.

Washington Governors University is all online and provides accredited degrees to the Bachelor’s or Master’s level in Business, Teaching, Information Technology, or Health & Nursing. It is a competency-based model, so for some courses if you already know the material and can pass the test; you get credit quickly. The price is based on 6-month periods, and students are allowed to progress as fast as you can, so the cost depends on how quickly an individual proceeds.

I’m currently going through the Bachelor of Science in Business Management program at WGU, and some parts are easy, and others are challenging. The timing is flexible around my work schedule, though there are minimum standards for progress. The general expectation is at least 15-20 hours of study per week. There is a variety of material including ebooks, videos, interactive software, plus personal coaching from a program mentor and class instructors via phone or screen sharing. I suppose that many people with busy schedules and different learning styles could make their way through this program.

College Alternative

Praxis is an entirely different take on education and job preparation. It is an organization that focuses on accelerated training for professional careers. My understanding is that this works well for some highly competent young people to skip college and get right to providing value and earning money. The program combines business training with job placement and dedicated job support. In this case, you don’t pay until you’re hired. They do this by partnering with certain businesses and developing specifically targeted training programs while minimizing excess fluff. I don’t know much about this and don’t have experience with it, but I might have been interested in doing this when I was younger.


There are many alternative ways of getting an education and advancing your skills. Some of them are low-cost or free. Some of them might be more valuable than other methods.

The list that I put together here shows only a few of the possibilities. What are some other ways?


One Response

  1. Matt Courtney says:

    Great post! I’ll be sharing this with my sons!!!

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