Should I Go Back to School to Get My Dream Job? with Ken Coleman

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Are you considering going back to school before pursuing your dream job? What if you could get that position without paying thousands of dollars for more education? Find Your Dream Job guest Ken Coleman says it’s entirely possible, and he offers two questions to ask yourself before signing up for student loans. Ken also shares networking tips, how to pursue alternative education, and the importance of following your gut. 

About Our Guest:

Ken Coleman is the nationally syndicated radio host of The Ken Coleman Show and the author of The Proximity Principle.

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 289:

Should I Go Back to School to Get My Dream Job? with Ken Coleman

Airdate: March 31, 2021

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

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You may wonder if you need a new degree or other educational credential to move ahead in your career.

Our guest today says before you write that first tuition check, you need to ask yourself two questions. Don’t you want to know what they are?

Here to talk about whether you should go back to school to get your dream job is Ken Coleman.

He’s the nationally syndicated radio host of The Ken Coleman Show and the author of The Proximity Principle.

Ken helps people learn, grow, and challenge themselves in their professional lives.

He joins us from Nashville, Tennessee.

Well, Ken, here’s where I want to start, whether it makes sense to go back to school to get your next job- and that’s always a popular question, but especially now, during a recession- and you say that everyone should ask themself two questions in thinking about that choice. Is it the only way? And is it the best way?

Why do you recommend starting there, Ken?

Ken Coleman:

Because we have grown up in an America where college has become the default path to success. That’s what’s been marketed down our throats and we’re talking about, coming out of WWII in the 50s and 60s, as higher education becomes now more of a thing and it begins to grow, and now you’ve got federal dollars flowing into state schools for research and governors realizing, “This is great for economic development.”

And then that combines with the Pell grant which was wildly successful that went into the student loan program, and families began to say, “We can’t afford it but we can pay it off with a low-interest rate loan over time and so now our kids can go to college.” When college really wasn’t a thing for many of them growing up.

You combine those two storms into this perfect storm of a marketing message that says college, higher education, is the best way to success. We saw this in the 70s in the form of a poster in many public high schools around the country, where on one side there was a gleaming college grad, diploma in hand; on the other, a working stiff of a guy with coverall on and a frown and dirt on his face, and underneath it is said, “Work smart,” underneath the graduate, “Not hard,” underneath the laborer, and it sent a message that the trades were less than and that college education was the high-class way to go. And it was all, I think, meant from a good place and I’m not anti-education but that’s the message that we’ve been sent and it’s been drilled into our American psyche to where parents are ashamed if their kid doesn’t go to college. So, you start with, “Is it the only way?”

That first question minimizes all of that marketing garbage and makes you ask the question, do I need a college degree to do the work that I want to do. And sometimes it’s going to be an absolutely, no air around that, you have to have the degree. In many fields, in a growing, growing amount of fields, you don’t have to have it. And so, that’s why we have you ask that question, “Is it the only way?”

Then the secondary question is, “Is it the best way?” Because there will be times where, “Is it the only way” will give you a no, but “Is it the best way,” and the answer, again, in certain fields still is yes but again, in many fields, the answer is no.

If it’s not a resounding yes to, “Is it the only way” or “Is it the best way”, then now we have some clarity to say, “Well, wait a second, I could save myself a lot of time and money.”

Mac Prichard:

Who should you ask these questions of? I mean, what is the best way to answer them? Do you go out to talk to people? Do you do research on your own? What have you seen work, Ken?

Ken Coleman:

Both and. I mean, this is just good old-fashioned, what’s the marketplace say? And so when you begin to look at job boards and job descriptions of a job in the field that you are curious about going into, and then you actually talk to people in those fields, people who are hiring in those fields, you’re going to get a really clear answer. I think it’s pretty obvious, just your basic research, and then the good old-fashioned talking to folks, just getting feedback is going to be all of the information that you need and it’s pretty obvious. If you want to be a doctor, you’ve got to go to undergrad and you’ve got to go to med school, lawyer, same thing, physicist, I mean, we could do the homework on this and it’s going to be pretty obvious what the ticket is for admission.

Mac Prichard:

Give us examples, Ken, of professions that people think they need an educational credential or degree for but maybe they don’t. Can you give us some examples?

Ken Coleman:

Of course. I mean, the glaring field that I think everybody is intrigued by and wants to get into, and for good reason, it’s an exploding field and that’s technology. So, just to give you an idea right now, you could get a computer science degree or technology degree and it could cost you as much as $180K. And you can now go to many, many tech schools, what I would call a tech trade school. I have a sponsor, a partner really, on my radio show that can train my listeners in 9 months and less than $15K and they’ve got an 85% placement rate. And you’re talking about a starting range of salaries between $65K and $75K a year. They’re going to teach people who don’t have any technology experience; they can teach them to be programmers, that’s the coding and all the different nuances there in the technology space. And what’s great about that example, Mac, is that, as you know, every industry is a technology industry.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in the nonprofit world, ministry world, big business, healthcare, big-time sports; technology is everywhere. And so, every type of industry has a lot of technology jobs in it, and so that’s just one primary example.

The other area is, hey, if I want to go in and eventually want to lead a team, let’s say I just want to lead in business. Well, a lot of people think they’ve got to go get an MBA and the reality is, is that MBA isn’t going to make them a better leader. It looks good behind your name and if you go to an Ivy league and get your MBA, and there’s probably a handful of other schools, if you get your MBA there you may get a bump in starting salary, but the reality is that you could go right into sales, you could go right into marketing with some basic training courses and things of that nature, and go in entry-level, work your way up, and the next thing you know, you’re leading a team of people, making 6 figures and eventually work yourself into a corner office and again, nobody cares about the degree.

Those are just two examples in the business world where the college degree is largely irrelevant.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s break down that process that you outlined earlier, which is going out and having conversations with people before you sign up for a degree program or perhaps a technical school. How do you recommend people get started? You mentioned, “Go out and talk to folks.” Well, let’s be more specific, Ken, what’s a good first, second, and third step there?

Ken Coleman:

Let’s start with who you know. So, you can look at your close family and your close friends, that would be your inner circle. Who do they know that works in the field that you’re interested in working in? And then let’s go another layer outside of that. Now that would be acquaintances so these are your acquaintances, so first is that inner circle of yours and now your acquaintances. Now, these are people that, again, if you saw them on the street they’d stop and say hi, you might not be doing life with them but you know them from social activities, whether that be sports or your kids sporting events, and you’re there two or three times a week at their practices. Whatever your social activities are, and then I would include in this, personal acquaintances, and I recently, Mac, started talking about, in my show, what I would call social acquaintances, and that’s social media.

These are people that you don’t see every day in your community or you don’t see on a semi-consistent basis in real life but you do know them from college. They were a decent friend in college, you’ve reconnected with them through Facebook or Instagram or whatever, and so those are the layers where we really get most of our job opportunities.

Mark Granovetter is a well-known sociologist who did a study on this, and so those acquaintances are where a lot of those opportunities come from, so you go there. And now you’re looking at, these are who I know. Let’s just say, for example purposes, Mac, that you’ve identified 200 people that you know. So, that’s family, close friends, and acquaintances, and many times it’s not about who we know, it’s who they know. If each one of those 200 connections knows 200 people, now you begin to see the exponential power and so the idea is that you’re putting the word out. “I want to learn more about this job or this industry; do you know somebody? I’d love to just hop on the phone with them, or a zoom with them, or get coffee or lunch.” Whatever, and that’s how opportunities to clarify and verify, is what I call it, hey, what is the best path? And that is a very practical way to get the information that you need.

It’s like a master class instead of just relying on Google.

Mac Prichard:

Identify the people that you know, ask them for references…

Ken Coleman:

Yeah, “Hey, will you connect me to someone? Do you know somebody directly or do you know somebody who knows somebody?” And so, you just put it out there and ask, “Will you connect me?” This is good old-fashioned, put a good word in.

So, they send an email or a text, or they make a phone call and say, “Hey, I’ve got a friend who is interested in doing what you do. Would you be willing to give them a few minutes on the phone?” It’s that simple and most of the time the answer is going to be yes. And so, the next step is, obviously, you reach out to them and you learn. You’re asking them all kinds of questions. “Hey, what does your average day look like? What do you love most about the job? What do you like the least? How’d you get there? Has that changed? Would you recommend I go the same path that you went? What’s different?”

It’s just like doing a college term paper on their role and how they got there, and that’s going to offer you a tremendous amount of information.

Mac Prichard:

What specific questions do you recommend asking, Ken, about education requirements?

Ken Coleman:

Well, I just mentioned it. “How did you get qualified? Did you go to a traditional 4-year school? Did you get a graduate degree? Is that relevant anymore? Can I get a certification or 2 or 3?”

For instance, let’s use this technology example. You’ve got somebody who’s a high-level programmer- “Did you go to college?” “I did.” “Is that college degree that you got relevant anymore?” “No, it really isn’t because I had to learn this, this, this and this, and you can now learn that with a certification program and a 6-week training course over here and go here. And if you’ve got that skill, then that’s really all you need to get in here and be a programmer.”

That’s the real-life kind of stuff that you’re going to find out and you’re going to realize, okay, back to those two questions that we started with, is it the only way? They’re going to tell you their opinion, and get multiple opinions, put them all in one bucket and let’s see where we land. Is it the best way? Again, they’re going to give you an opinion on that as well.

Mac Prichard:

I want to take a break, Ken, and when we come back I want to dig in a little bit more into how to analyze the opinions that you get because I know there’s a listener out there who’s thinking, “Well, I did that and I got conflicting advice.”

Stay with us and when we return,  we’ll continue our conversation with Ken Coleman.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Ken Coleman.

He’s the nationally syndicated radio host of The Ken Coleman Show and the author of The Proximity Principle.

He joins us from Nashville, Tennessee.

Ken, before the break we were talking about how to have conversations with people to determine what education credentials you need to get your dream job, and I’m curious, how do you recommend people sort out conflicting advice? Because they might hear one thing from one expert and another from another expert. What’s your advice there?

Ken Coleman:

Well, you’ve got to use the good old-fashioned common sense, but I think the purpose of getting multiple opinions is to see, where are the consistencies because I would look at 2 main things in the advice that they get from folks.

Number one, the facts, because I think that facts are facts. I think that the opinions on how you arrive at a fact is kind of interesting, and those can vary, but I don’t think that you’re going to see a tremendous amount of difference in some of these facts because they’re just straight forward, “How did you get qualified? Do you think I need this?” And so you’ve got the opinions piece, but then there’s the, “Here’s what’s going on in the industry,” And I think that if you do enough of those conversations with people who are really successful and who are in there, you’re going to see consistency in what I would call the facts.

Now, opinions on how you get there or what you do, you’ve got to do the old-fashioned, like I said, common sense test there and say, “I got this many opinions on this particular issue, I had some strong opinions on this one…” And you kind of weigh it all out and you look at it and you say, “Alright, I’m seeing some themes here.” And then you have to sit down and say, “Well, what do I think? What do I think is the best for me?” Because each of these people that gave you an opinion on whether or not you should do it or not, well, they’re coming at it from their perspective, they’re coming at it, maybe, from their financial standpoint.

You have to remove all opinions, get the facts, and then say, “What do I think is the best decision for me?” And then I would also trust your gut and I’ll tell you why.

I was fascinated by this, Mac, so I did some research and was reading about the studies that neurologists have done on the brain and this idea of the gut. Is this gut feeling any different from the logic in the brain? And some neuroscientists tested some world-class chess players, and the long story short is, they found that, they put heart monitors on these world-class, grandmaster chess players, and every time the grandmaster chess players would make a bad move, right before they made a move that ended up being negative for them in the match, their heart rate spiked, and the conclusion they walked away from with this study is that the body is connected to the brain, duh. And so the heart rate, because the brain was saying, “This is not a good idea. This is not a good idea. This is not a good idea.” But it was sending a physical message and the heart rate spiked and that’s what people refer to as, “Well, I had this feeling.”

Well, the feeling is not this mystical thing in your gut that you just play a hunch, it’s actually connected to the brain and to the logic. And with logic, we sort of say, “Well, I made a logical decision, I used my head on this one.” Well, that gut feeling, that feeling that you just feel in your body that it’s not right, that’s because your brain is trying to send a message to you, “Don’t do this.” Or, “Do this.” And so when we have a gut feeling to, yes, do something or a gut feeling to not do something, we’ve got to trust that. That is our brain sending us one more signal through our body, and so I think that you’ve got to trust that gut.

Mac Prichard:

Speaking of feelings, at the start of our show, you mentioned the expectation is out there that you should go to college. Ken, what do you recommend to a listener who goes through this process, talks to people, decides that they don’t need an MBA or a college degree to accomplish their goals. How should they deal with the expectations of family members or peers who say, “Well, you’ve got to go to school.” What advice do you have for someone who’s taking a different path?

Mac Prichard:

I think they’ve got to be clear and they’ve got to be respectful. Be clear before they go into these conversations that they’re going to have some people that push back, that are going to think that that’s not a smart decision, that that’s risky, and they’ve got to be clear on why they’ve made the decisions that they’ve made and retreat to clarity and say, “I know why I’m making this decision. I know it’s solid. They’re not going to have all of the facts, they don’t have all of the information that I have and I’ve got to be okay with that. And I don’t need to convince them, and so I need to stay clear and not let their approval sway me…” because it’s powerful.

The approval of our family and peers is such a huge deal to us humans. And so we’ve got to be clear going into those conversations and know that there’s going to be some push back and be okay with that.

The second thing is to be respectful. You don’t have to explain your decisions, share what you want to share, or don’t share anything at all. And then remember this, that nobody cares where you went to school. Nobody does. I would ask your listeners just to go with me to the last time that they went to a doctor’s appointment, maybe a dentist appointment, something of a medical nature that clearly is not left up to amateurs. And you’re putting your body in their hands. And I want to know if anybody, if you, before you got your treatment, or before the doctor saw you, did you say, “Hey, would you just run back in your office real fast and bring me those diplomas? I’d like to see your undergrad diploma and I’d like to see the master’s degree or the graduate-level degree that you got. Could you bring those in please?”

Nobody does that. Nobody does that. Well, why? Because we’re there at that doctor or that dentist because we’ve heard something credible about them. We walk in, we assess the situation, we say, “Okay, I think that we’re in a credible place.” And we put our trust in these folks, and we don’t even know where they went to school. We didn’t interview them about their grades or their GPA. So, nobody cares where you went to school. What people care about is, can you do your job? And that includes your leader, that includes your team, and that includes your customer.

Nobody cares.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s talk about what else you can do to get your dream job besides going back to school. I know that some of the options that you recommend are on-the-job training, alternative education, and even more networking. Talk to us about those alternatives, Ken.

Ken Coleman:

Yeah, so on the job training. We’re seeing Google doing this now, you’re going to be seeing other big companies doing this, we’re seeing, I believe, the accounting firm of Deloitte and Touche. I could be wrong, it might be one of the other big names, but they are removing the college degree requirement, and the reason is that they know that people with basic math skills and the character traits that they’re looking for, that they can train them to do the work that they want them to do, and so they have a robust training program. You’re going to see more and more companies doing this, on-the-job training, where they bring you in at entry-level, they train you, they may even reimburse you for some schooling or certification, and so they’re going to take care of that themselves.

The other type of job training is just good old-fashioned experience. I don’t have a college degree. I left early, it was intentional, to get into the workforce, and then it eventually transitioned into radio. And I just learned how to do radio by starting on Saturday when nobody’s listening. Believe me, Saturday AM radio at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, nobody’s listening but that’s when I started and that’s how I got good. And it was just good old-fashioned, put myself out there, taking cuts at the plate, and that is the on-the-job option.

The other option is alternative education, which, again, I mentioned. I’ve got a partner on my show who is, again, training people, and placing them, I mean, in Silicon Valley and beyond. And these are programs that are a fraction of the cost and time of college. And then the third is just the good old-fashioned proximity principle. It’s why I wrote it. It’s, in order to do what you want to do, you’ve got to be around people that are doing it and in places where it is happening. What that simply means is, if you put yourself around the right people and put yourself in the right places, opportunity comes knocking on your door. You don’t have to kick the door down.

You don’t have to wave your hand and jump up and down. And that’s just the way that it works, and it’s always worked that way. It’s not a new concept. So, those three ways, that’s how you get in and that’s how you move up.

Mac Prichard:

What steps do you recommend someone take to sort out the different value of those opportunities and figure out what strategy might work the best for them?

Ken Coleman:

It’s a really fancy question. Are you just simply saying which of those three is the best way to go and how to determine that?

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, I think that you’ve translated it into plain English. Thank you, Ken.

Ken Coleman:

There we go. Yeah, you’re so smart. See, I’m not even college-educated, folks; I’ve got to cipher through Mac’s intelligence.

Mac Prichard:

I have a feeling that your GPA was higher than mine but go ahead.

Ken Coleman:

Yeah, I don’t know. That’d be a fun contest.

It comes down to, again, looking at the particular area. Okay, so let’s say that you want to get into broadcasting. A degree is really not a big deal if you want to be on air. If you want to be a producer, that’s going to be more of an issue, the technicalities there. But to be an on-air talent, in this particular field, the alternative education is going to be all three. It’s going to be on-the-job training, it’s going to be connecting like a mad man. I think that it’s always all 3 on some level, so I don’t think it’s…the way you asked the question, I don’t think it’s, “Well, I’m going with option A and then we’ll see if the others work.”

I think it’s always all three, even if you have a college education. Because I think that college education in most fields is just really, really irrelevant. And so, I think that you’ve got to look at, “Well, what’s the best step right now. So before I can do on-the-job training, I need to do alternative education, and connect like a wild man while I’m doing that, so that I get into a place that will continue to train me.”

I just don’t know that there’s a linear answer on one or the other. I think it’s all three and I think it will reveal itself to you, depending on the industry and depending on the job that you’re looking at.

Mac Prichard:

What’s striking to me as you talk, Ken, is it also depends on having a clear idea of where you want to go and the industry and the company that you want to work in, doesn’t it?

Ken Coleman:

Absolutely, that will reveal itself. I mean, we could go with a million examples here. So, let’s say that you want to get into graphic design. Okay, so by its nature, that’s a very artistic, creative role. So, you’ve either got the chops or you don’t, alright? So you’re going, “Okay, well, I think I’m pretty good but I want to put myself out there and I’m looking for a junior graphic design position or whatever.” And so, we go to a company or 2 or 3, Company XYZ, Company ABC, Company DEF. We look at the job description and we look at it and we say, “Okay, I think I’ve got the chops there. I think I’ve got the base experience level for this, so now what?”

Well, is there some additional certifications or some classes that you can take that would give you a little bit of an extra bump on your resume to say, “I’ve also done this? I’ve taken this course on graphic design and I’ve taken this, and I’m a part of this association.” Whatever, and now I’m going to be connecting like crazy to see if I know anybody that works over there who can recommend me or are some good graphic designers. Some people I can get to know and they would endorse me on my resume. And so I’ve got some senior graphic designers saying, “This gal, this guy, they’ve got the chops, they’re talented. I’d really recommend them.”

Then, once you get in, you ask yourself in the interview process, as they begin to talk to you back and forth, ask questions like, “Hey, what does on-the-job training and development look like? Do you guys do that here? What’s it look like? Do you reimburse for continual education in this area?”

Again, that’s the practical nature of it. What’s the job and then which of those three strategies do I need to employ? Do I employ all three? Which one comes first? And so on and so forth.

Mac Prichard:

It’s been a terrific conversation, Ken. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Ken Coleman:

Well, we’re working on a great, what I call a self-awareness assessment that will measure talents- what you do best, passion- the work that you love to perform, and mission- the results of your work that matter the most deeply to you. All those three results come together for folks to see their sweet spot in the marketplace. And the fun thing about this, Mac, is that there are multiple jobs, multiple career paths, and multiple dream jobs in the sweet spot. We’re going to reveal that for people; we just believe that that’s going to be groundbreaking.

Then also, working on my next big book which will reveal the seven stages to meaningful work, which is get clear, get qualified, get connected, get started, get promoted, get the dream job, and then give yourself away. Quick preview there on what we’re working on. We’re really excited, it’s going to help a lot of people around the globe.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific I know people can learn more about both your upcoming book and your services by visiting your website,

Now, Ken, given all of the terrific advice that you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about whether you should go back to school or not to get your dream job?

Ken Coleman:

Is it the only way? Is it the only possible way to get qualified, to actually have a shot to get in your field and move up? Is it the best way?

If the answer is yes to both of those, do it. If it’s not, find the alternative, be okay with what other people say about it, and get after what it is that you were created to do.

Mac Prichard:

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She’s a former TV news anchor and the founder of The Confidence Project. Tracy is also the author of The New Hello: What to Say, What to Do in the New World of Work.

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And Tracy says you need to be just as thoughtful about your language when you speak to a hiring manager.

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