Continuous Learning

Explore every possible training opportunity

by Joseph D. Conklin

Since the first one was published, I have followed ASQ’s Futures Studies with great interest. In considering the speculation about the different ways in which the quality world might move, I am reminded about the usefulness of training and retraining for marketability and career vitality.

In the early part of my career, opportunities for training tended to come prepackaged. The MBA courses or ASQ certification exams were widely publicized and standard options. As I have been fortunate to work for organizations with generous tuition reimbursement, obtaining training was usually a matter of mentioning the program, filling out the paperwork and getting the signatures.

I still am able to receive training that way, but over the years, I have had the opportunity to move beyond the prepackaged route and assemble some of my own training ideas. Whether prepackaged or customized, the training has almost always helped keep my skills fresh and sharp.

Falling into place

A recent instance of this do-it-yourself approach started when I was discussing career moves with a friend from a former place of employment. I admitted I was interested in doing something to add to my skills. My friend had recently transferred from the unit where we had worked together for a while. Since the transfer, he explained the opportunities in the new unit for people with backgrounds in economics. I replied that economics had always interested me, but I wasn’t ready to pursue a full economics degree. After doing some research, however, it turned out that with my existing background, I only needed four economics courses to qualify for any economics-related job opening I might find.

Because my new organization served a similar mission and constituency as my friend’s, and after talking to my division’s HR officer, I discovered the same opportunities existed. To my pleasant surprise, after talking with my boss, I found out economics was considered a key competency throughout the agency, and the division had no problem sponsoring me, as long as the effort could be accommodated within existing work and budget commitments.

At about this time, I was mailed a flyer about an advanced economics program being offered through the local satellite campus of a well-regarded university. I met with the program advisor and explained my interests. While the school was concentrating on recruiting students for full degrees, the program advisor said people with the right quantitative background could be admitted as special students and pursue less than a full degree, concentrating on those classes that most applied to their immediate career needs.

The whole thing was more flexible than I first imagined. It looked as if something good was starting to fall into place.

I was reassured of this when I studied the course offerings. There were four courses in the econometrics program—a combination of statistics and economics—that caught my attention. The program advisor said that with my statistics degree, I probably would not have any trouble being admitted as a special student if I indicated these four courses as my area of interest. My company’s HR administrators confirmed the courses counted toward the agency’s qualifying background for economics-related jobs.

The satellite campus was within a 15-minute ride from work, and the courses were either offered online or at night. The timing was convenient to my employer. The evening on-campus courses required a small adjustment to my work schedule, but my boss said that wasn’t a problem.

At that point, all the pieces were in place. I applied as a special student, started the paperwork for tuition reimbursement and visited the campus bookstore to get an advance look at the course material. The material was an exciting introduction to a branch of my specialty I had not seen before.

Valuable lessons

The experience reminded me of some valuable lessons in identifying customizable training opportunities:

  1. Share your career dreams with people you trust. That initial conversation with my friend helped me find a fast training option that did not require an entirely new degree.
  2. Take the initiative and ask for help. I could have assumed HR, my boss or the school would not be interested in my pursuit of these courses. But they could not have been more supportive. While I admit there was no guarantee of that support at the outset, if I had not bothered to ask, I would never have found out.
  3. Be alert to your environment. While coming up with the idea of taking four courses was the product of my own discussion and research, the customized training opportunity took off when the flyer from the school showed up in my mailbox. I get lots of flyers and could have thrown this one out without reading it. By taking the time to look at it, I was able to put the finishing touches on an idea sooner. Taking a moment to look and listen to your surroundings can be profitable.

I encourage readers to follow a similar path. Whether your next training opportunity is a standardized program or not, I believe you will find a conscientious search for one rewarding


The author refers to ASQ’s first Future of Quality study, published in 1995. The most recent update to the study, "No Boundaries—ASQ’s Future of Quality Study" from 2008, can be found at www.asq.org/quality-progress/2008/10/global-quality/futures-study.pdf.

Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech and is a senior member of ASQ. Conklin is also an ASQ-certified quality manager, engineer, auditor and reliability engineer.

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