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Honing your skills:How more education benefits small business owners

By Robyn A. Friedman    

After 14 years of being in business for himself—and at the age of 56, Charles T. Brackett, P.E., owner of Brackettstudying and Associates, Inc., a structural engineering firm, decided to go back to school to pursue an MBA. After completing the rigorous two-year program at Jacksonville University, he’s glad he did.

“I had been successful because of my natural instincts, but I wanted to get a stronger background in business and have better control over the management of the organization,” Brackett said. “Now I’m more productive, and I’ve learned a lot more about marketing strategies, which will help us get jobs internationally.”

Employers routinely invest in their employees, encouraging them to pursue additional education—and then reap the benefits of that education through increased productivity, reduced turnover and improved employee morale. But advanced education and training are just as vital to small business owners, who need to keep their skills sharp as well as develop new ones.

Today’s workforce is rapidly losing its skills. According to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 58% of human resources professionals reported that some workers lack competencies needed to perform their jobs, up from 54% in 2005. Workers—including small business owners—need to keep their skill sets current in order to compete in an ever-changing global economy.

Even if small business owners are technically competent in their own field, they may not have managerial competence. That may prevent them from taking their business to the next level. Lack of human resources skills, for example, may lead to difficulties in attracting or retaining employees.

 “No matter what industry they’re in, small business owners need to be able to make sound strategic business decisions,” said Diana Peaks, director of transfer, adult, and graduate enrollment at Jacksonville University. “By going back to school and taking courses like finance, accounting or communications, they get a better perspective of the business at large.”

But the process of choosing additional education can be daunting. Should you brush up your skills at workshops sponsored by an organization like SCORE or matriculate in a degree program at a major university? Attend classes in person or online? And what course of study is best? Consider the alternatives.

Workshops and seminars

Many local organizations, such as SCORE and the Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida, offer free or low-cost workshops on topics such as government contracting, accounting or social networking. The Small Business Development Center even offers an online academy called SmallBizU that was created specifically to meet the education and training needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Courses range from three to four hours and cost $30 each.

Workshops and seminars are useful and practical, but they may not be the ultimate answer for everyone. “They were not in-depth enough,” said Brackett. “When you take actual classes, you spend more than just a day or half day on a topic so you have more time to absorb it.”

Industry-specific classes

Continuing education is required for many small business owners. Attorneys and medical professionals, for example, are required to keep their skills current. Even if not required, however, classes that lead to certification in a particular field can be beneficial. A real estate agent who gets certified as an Accredited Buyer’s Representative, for example, may gain a competitive edge.

Specialized classes also lend credibility to a business owner. “Certificate programs and courses are extremely important and valuable,” said Joe McCann, dean of the Davis College of Business at Jacksonville University. “Many lenders and insurance companies, for example, increasingly expect and value owners who keep current with the latest business issues and build skills.”

Life-long learning

Options abound for those who want more than a workshop but who have no desire to matriculate in a degree program. The University of North Florida’s Division of Continuing Education, for example, offers non-credit courses for those who want to change careers, advance in their current position, or master new skills. “It’s practical, hands-on stuff, as opposed to the theoretical things you would get in an MBA or other credit program,” said Tim Giles, director of continuing education at UNF. “We offer a lot of programs that deal with marketing and sales that are very beneficial for people who are running their own businesses.”

Giles said that classes range from half-day courses that start at $99, to 12-week certificate programs costing $900. Topics include human resources, project management and communications.

Degree programs

Enrolling in a degree program offers small business owners a concentrated education in what they do in the real world—run a business. In the past, MBA programs were geared toward the needs of large organizations; today, many schools offer programs designed for entrepreneurs. These programs offer the opportunity to network with other business owners and executives as well as to learn from case studies involving other companies. They are more expensive than non-degree programs, and applicants need to go through the college admissions process. Classes are offered at convenient times, such as evenings and weekends, to accommodate the needs of executives. Many offer online classes as well.  

Robyn A. Friedman is a contributing editor to Jacksonville Small Business Advantage. She can be reached at RAFWriter@att.net or through her Web site www.everythingwrite.com

SIDEBAR

Taking the next step

Ready to sign up for some classes to advance your education? Here’s some advice from the experts:

• Make sure the class will benefit you and your customers. “There are so many options available,” said Giles. “You really need to think about what your goals and objectives are and then look for programs that will help you meet those goals and objectives.”

• Do your homework. Look at what the different institutions and organizations in your area have to offer. Visit each one, and talk to current students. Ask what it’s like to be a student there—and what benefits they received from completing the program.

• Make sure you understand accreditation. “If someone says to you, ‘Yes, we’re accredited,’ do your research and find out if the accreditations they have and if your credits will transfer,” said Peaks. “Too often people spend time and money in a program and then want to transfer and find out the institution they’ve been attending is not regionally accredited and that there are few schools that would accept those credits.”

• Just do it. If you decide to invest your time in more education, then dedicate yourself to it. “People get overcome by circumstances,” said Candace Moody, vice president of communications for WorkSource, which provides employment and training assistance for both businesses and job seekers. “Budget your time as carefully as you budget the money for it, and make sure that if you’re going to invest in education that you get something back out of it. Most educational courses—no matter what level, no matter what subject—are only as good as the time and energy that you put into them.”


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