What's New in Adult Ed? 'Soft' Skills

Jane Gold of Bethesda, Md., already knows how she will be spending every Sunday afternoon between Oct. 18 and Dec. 13. Rain or shine, she will drive into Washington, park her car, and, sketch pad and pencils in hand, walk into a drawing class.

For her part, Susan Ohlidal of Boston will devote many an evening in the coming months to courses leading to a certificate in nonprofit management. These women will be joining the ever-swelling legions of adults taking continuing-ed classes to enrich their lives, enhance their marketability, or both.

Since the 1970s, adult and continuing-education programs have focused primarily on helping students build vocational and technical skills, most recently in information technology.

But demographics are changing that. Retirement is freeing up more and more people to pursue interests they never had time to explore before - like silversmithing or sushi-making.

And, while there is always demand for courses that enhance specific high-tech skills, employees hoping to advance are increasingly interested in courses that help them with such "soft" skills as teamwork and effective communication.

That may help explain why the University Continuing Education Association in Washington reports that the demand today is equally balanced between self-enrichment classes, including self-help, and more work-related programs.

Regardless of the topic, adults are interested in learning from the very best. At the Boston Center for Adult Education, for example, classes that feature a well-known personality consistently sell out.

"People really want to work with the big name in the field," says Lauren Young, education director at BCAE, which has about 22,000 students, most of them between the ages of 20 and 40.

One area of growth for BCAE is what Ms. Young calls "mind-body classes." These include such subjects as yoga, meditation, and Tai-Chi.

"Self-help classes account for about half of all enrollments," Young says.

Demand for skill-building classes

But the demand for skill-building classes at BCAE and in general also remains high. Many adult students are concentrating exclusively on enhancing their careers - often in ways that go beyond learning how to use the latest software.

"There are two imperatives in the workplace," says James Wayne, dean of the School of Continuing Education at Montgomery College with campuses in Germantown, Rockville, and Takoma Park, Md. "Technology is one, but that's probably not the one that's going to get you fired. You can always learn that, but if you cannot communicate, make a presentation or play on a team - that will hurt you. Particularly the last one, because your behavior generates something companies cannot tolerate: turnover."

Dean Wayne, who works closely with local employers to tailor campus and on-site classes, also points out that as corporations have become less and less hierarchical they increasingly require that their employees be accountable, responsible, and able to make decisions.

In other words, he says, "it argues for a more educated work force." Employers in both the public and private sectors increasingly offer continuing education as their primary employee benefit. They often partner with local colleges and universities to ensure a curriculum that is germane to their needs.

To accommodate people's busy lives, some employers offering on-site classes have added early morning and noon sessions to evening and weekend courses.

At the Patent & Trademark Office University, which offers credential programs to Patent Office employees in Washington, the noon classes fill up in a day and have an attrition rate of only 1 percent, according to PTOU director John Wells. Ideally, says Dr. Wells, employees would rather finish their workday, go to class, then go home and have time to digest the material. "But they have too many obligations," he adds. With lunchtime classes, "they don't have to worry about baby sitters and carpools."

The need for flexibility has also spurred a boom in distance-learning programs, which are essentially the descendants of correspondence courses. Instead of students and instructors mailing assignments and term papers back and forth, students log on to the class's Web site at home or in a campus computer lab and "attend class."

Finding the time

Time constraints are also affecting the choice of courses. In the past, Ms. Ohlidal has signed up for canoeing, cooking, and meditation classes and enjoyed them thoroughly. But today she works full time in a nonprofit agency, volunteers at her church - "which eats up much of my evening and week-end time" - and tries to set aside time to spend with her partner. "So if I want to take an evening class, it needs to be work related."

This is also a consideration for retirees like Steven Gordon, who used to head a computer company and now lives in Asheville, N.C. He is too busy creating video presentations on a volunteer basis for Christian groups such as the San Diego-based Moms In Touch and the Promise Keepers, to pursue any outside interests.

"The classes I have taken," he says referring to technical courses offered around the country by Washburn University of Topeka, Kan., "have all been to teach me how to run the equipment" needed to create three-dimensional imagery and animation on his computer.

Others, however, are at stages in their lives where they want to carve out time to explore themselves and the world around them. Ms. Gold, for example, is looking forward to her eight-week drawing course at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

"I've always wanted to try my hand at it," she says. "The resources are so exceptional, it is really ridiculous not to take advantage of them."

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