WHEN the company that computer programmer Chris Bentley worked for folded, his prospects did not look good. Although other firms were hiring, he says, "I was the most junior person in the company and not sure of being selected."
But Mr. Bentley was enrolled in a graduate training program at Harvard University's Extension School. And he was learning skills a prospective employer wanted. With his strong work record and special training, Bentley is now working in computer graphics.
His situation is not uncommon in today's fast-changing employment market. More than ever before, continuing education programs are offering the extra education and retraining that keeps workers competitive. According to a recent survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans, employer-sponsored education is the most-liked benefit, outweighing child care, flexible work hours, and family leave.
Employers spend $9 billion a year to send employees to outside education providers, says Curtis Plott, of the American Society for Training and Development.
"Some say the funds are used only by highly-paid employees, but the reality is that most recipients earn less than $30,000 a year," says Kay Kohl, executive director of the National University Continuing Education Association.
While enrollment in traditional programs has declined during the recession, continuing education programs have seen an across-the-board increase, Ms. Kohl says. About two-thirds of all masters degrees nationwide are being earned through part-time study.
For workers not supported by their companies, limited federal and state loans and grants are available. But such "programs are generally underfunded," Mr. Plott says. Many employees take out personal loans to finance continuing education.
For students, the flexible part-time schedules and reasonable costs of part-time study help make achieving post-secondary training, a college degree, or post-graduate credentials possible.
For the nation's 3,500 colleges and universities and 1,200 community colleges, these programs are a way to attract nontraditional students at a time when demographics show a drop in full-time students of traditional college age.
Programs vary widely among institutions, but they generally react to the needs of the job market. Harvard Extension's Museum Studies program, for example, was created because students asked for it, says Dean Michael Shinagel.
Community colleges often plan programs in conjunction with business advisory committees, says Jim McKenney, of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges. Such programs are often funded partly by state governments, which hope the promise of well-trained workers will cause businesses to locate and stay in that area.
More than half of all community college offerings nationwide are in nursing, electronics, or high-tech manufacturing.
Harvard Extension began to offer its graduate computer program in 1982 because of a critical shortage of computer-trained manpower in Boston, says Henry Leitner, a senior lecturer there.
Applicants to Harvard Extension's management certificate program are mainly interested in bolstering career credentials, says program director Delia Gerraughty. Alternately, students in the health careers program are typically individuals who have already started careers who need academic credentials to enter medical school. Continuing education programs also open doors to foreign students seeking American educations.
"Over the last 20 years the nontraditional student has become the traditional student," Mr. Shinagel. The programs are designed to meet the needs of students who are typically part-time, over 23, female, commuting, and working at least part-time, he adds.
As this trend continues, Shinagel says, continuing education programs will become more central to institutions' plans.
Some schools are creating interdisciplinary or interschool programs, Kohl adds. In a typical example, two Virginia institutions jointly offer a program in landscape architecture: a combination of the University of Virginia's architecture classes with Virginia Polytechnic Institute's horticulture and environmental offerings.
Continuing education can both provide schooling for working adults and create jobs in the community. These two goals mesh in Montgomery County, Maryland's urban learning center. The county donated 35 acres of land and $9 million to Johns Hopkins University for a continuing education facility that would be accessible to its residents.
"The county looked to the future and invested in the state's resources to remain strong," says Stanley Gabor, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Studies.