Why Lifelong Learning is More Important Now than Ever Before

Lifelong learning is an admirable goal, but it is even more than that. In today’s technological society where new advances may make some jobs obsolete, lifelong learning may be necessary to keep you employed in the long-term.

Automation Brings Changes to Many Jobs

A study by McKinsey showed that about 45 percent of all labor could be automated with the current technologies available, which would eliminate a lot of jobs or at least lead to big changes in how those jobs were performed.

It has become increasingly difficult to get skilled jobs without knowledge of how to use computers and other technologies. A receptionist used to be able to get a job by having decent typing skills and a good command of English grammar, but now, applicants may be expected to know a whole host of software programs and computer applications in order to effectively do their job.

Lifelong Learning Helps Weather Changes 

The jobs that are currently available in today’s economy depend greatly on lifelong learning because they continue to change and evolve. Technology hasn’t changed what jobs are available, but it has changed what those jobs involve. Grocery store clerks now scan grocery barcodes instead of typing in prices. Bank tellers electronically scan checks.

Even those with incomes over $200,000 per year spend an average of 31 percent of their jobs doing things that could be automated, according to McKinsey. Stockbrokers, for instance, spend a good portion of their time gathering and processing data, which could be done automatically with even greater accuracy than the way it is now done.

It’s great when an employer provides training to update job skills, but not all employers are equipped to do so, and smaller employers often can’t afford to pay for continuing education. Even when employers do provide training, the knowledge gained may only help for the current position or in limited ways that benefit the employer more than the employee.

Soft Skills Training

Besides lifelong education in new technical or task-oriented skills, it can be equally (or even more) beneficial to be a lifelong learner of what employers often call soft skills. Soft skills include learning about how to get along with people, how to collaborate on projects, and how to lead a team.

Learning soft skills can help you in all of your future jobs, no matter what you end up doing as a career or how often you change jobs. Employees who show mastery of soft skills are in high demand, and can often obtain more advanced positions because of the unique skills they possess.

Interested in staying ahead of the curve? Central Connecticut State University offers continuing education courses that can give you important skills to keep up with ever-changing careers and technologies. Join our mailing list now to see what he have to offer!

Student Interview Series: Christina Pinkham

Christina Pinkham graduated from Continuing Education Department’s Human Resources Professional Certificate Program at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in 2016. She currently works for a large insurance company in the Hartford area.

Ms. Pinkham enrolled in the program after a colleague recommended it to her. She appreciated the course instructors’ knowledge and experience. She also felt that the program was flexible and manageable for professionals with full-time careers. “The instructors understand you have other commitments and the program feels like it was designed with that in mind,” Ms. Pinkham said. “You can be flexible and complete as many or as few classes as you’d like on the timeline that works for your lifestyle.”

As a lifelong learner, Ms. Pinkham is committed to bettering herself with new challenges and expanding her knowledge base. CCSU’s Human Resources Certificate Program provided the perfect opportunity for her to enhance her career. She expects that the skills she learned in the program will be essential to her professional growth.

If you are interested in or want to learn more about the Human Resources Professional Certificate program at CCSU, please contact Judy Ratcliffe at JRatcliffe@ccsu.edu or 860-832-2276.

Expert Interview Series: Arlene Minkiewicz of PRICE Systems About How Companies Benefit From Cost Estimation and Predictive Analytics

Arlene Minkiewicz is a software measurement expert for PRICE Systems who is dedicated to finding creative solutions focused on making software development professionals successful. We recently sat down with Arlene to learn the basics about cost estimation and predictive analytics.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you pursue a career in cost estimation and research?

I realized early on that math and science were my strong suit and my passion.  In high school, I was enrolled in a special college prep program focusing on mathematics and engineering.  I studied at Lehigh University and graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering.  My first was a typical job for a fresh-out-of-college grad: working for an organization that built nuclear power plants, which required lots of boring paperwork for the new guy (or girl in my case).  I gave it a good year and then decided it was not for me.

What I had discovered during that time via various side jobs I took on was that I really enjoyed programming and did in fact excel in it.  So I found a job with PRICE Systems developing software.  I started working on internal software systems and quickly progressed to the development of the cost estimation software we sold to our customers.

While I enjoyed this, I was greatly intrigued by the the actual equations in the model and how they are developed.  Additionally, being on the cost research side of the organization (rather than the programming side) offered significantly more opportunities to travel to customer sites and conferences.  The best part of my job is the fact that I need to constantly track technology changes and provide guidance and equations to help my customers successfully estimate their complex technical projects and programs.

If someone were to say to you, “Cost management optimization is just a fancy term for finding ways to spend as little money as possible on a project or initiative,” how would you respond?

I would disagree vehemently! First of all, if you scour the news for project failures, particularly with software intensive systems, failure to estimate correctly is often cited as one of the top reasons for project failure.  Cost management optimization seeks to provide project managers the tools they need to understand the implications of both overestimating and underestimating projects.  Having said that, cost management optimization is truly a fancy phrase for the introduction of realism into the cost estimation and project planning exercise.

Is cost estimation more of an art form, or is it a skill that can be taught to anyone?

While good cost estimation definitely is supported by sound mathematical algorithms and processes, it is still considered an art form in many cases.  When I interview potential candidates for cost research positions, I often describe what we do as 50% math and statistics and 50% private detective.  Much of what we do from a model development perspective is understand technology and how we know it impacts costs, and then opine as to how future improvements will influence costs based on what we learn about the past and current states.

If you look at the estimation question from the perspective of our clients who need to use our tools to perform estimates, they need to be able to understand and quantify technologies and processes that they in some cases have not even invented yet.  They need to understand technologies in their industries and translate that understanding to input parameters in their cost models.  Not every estimation exercise is like this, but many require the application of knowledge and understanding, tempered with a dash of intuition, and always overseen by common sense.

When companies try to estimate the costs of a product, project, or solution, what do they often fail to take into account?

It definitely varies from estimator to estimator and from organization to organization.  When people do a bottoms-up estimate, which is focused on understanding costs at the component level,  they tend to underplay the activities around the integration of these components into a complete system.  Seasoned cost estimators tend not to miss much as long as they are estimating within their wheelhouse.   Once they start to estimate something outside of their comfort zone – especially if it’s new or unrealized technologies or processes – there is often a tendency to underestimate the costs of getting the technology mature enough to use or the learning curve associated with new processes.

People will assume that since they are using an agile development process for software that this will reduce their costs because they read somewhere that it was a more efficient way to do software.  While this may or may not be true (there is evidence to support both sides of that story), if this is the first time someone is doing an agile project, it’s not going to be less expensive than their current model because there is learning that needs to occur.

What kinds of common corporate occurrences or actions tend to have the most drastic effect on the cost estimations of a product or solution?

Often times, the estimators go into an estimation exercise knowing what the “right” answer should be.  In other words, they know what their managers expect them to come up with.

I had an experience once where, after being presented with a well-thought-out estimate with lots of history and data to back up its results, a project manager said “That estimate can’t be right. I only have 6 people, and we only have a year to do it.”  “Wishing” that a project would only cost $500,000 is a bad way to estimate projects. Sometimes I hear statements such as, “I know it cost $500,000 last time, but we’re gonna put better people on it with state-of-the-art tools, so we can certainly cut the costs by 40%.”  The proper response to that is, “Show me a study that proves that – one that does not come from the manufacturer of said ‘state-of-the-art’ tools.”

Another area where corporate behavior can influence the success of the cost estimate is when “requirements creep” is tolerated or even encouraged.  If the project you deliver a year from now has 50% more functionality than the one you prepared an estimate for, that’s not a bad estimate; that’s poor management of the project and the customers.  Estimation should not be a one-time exercise.  Projects change and sometimes those changes are important and necessary.  Good management recognizes that:

(1) if they add requirements, the last estimate is no longer valid,

(2) If they don’t do this, they will finish late and over budget, and

(3) if schedule and budget are not negotiable, adding requirements should be accompanied by the removal of requirements of the same size and complexity.

Finally, another area where corporations display bad behavior is to take the first number they get – the one they asked the development team to give them (just a ROM) when there is little known about the projects – and never let that number go.

To what extent is predictive analytics an exact science?

Predictive analytics, especially in its applications to cost estimation, is far from an exact science.  If one were to develop a predictive analytics model intended to model very rational and well-defined behavior, one could claim in that domain that predictive analytics approaches exact science.  In the cost world, it will never happen.

Cost data is some of the noisiest data I have had the pleasure to work with (and it is in fact a pleasure – one can learn even from the noisiest data if one thinks outside of the box). There are several reasons for this. At the end of a project, you can tell how many lines of code you’ve written, and you can (with some expertise) effectively quantify complexity and team experience on a well-defined scale.

The problem often comes with how much actual effort or money was associated with the program or project.  There are several reasons for this.  You may be asking people to provide quantitative measures intended to understand how much work they do and effectively measuring their productivity.  Not everyone is totally comfortable with that process, and they may cook the books.  There are also sometimes political or customer relations issues that require an organization to under-report or over-report how much something cost.

We are constantly trying to find public sources of cost data that we can share with our users to offer them guidance on their estimates.  It is often possible to find unit production costs for equipment that our customers often estimate. So I can find out what it costs (within a relatively decent margin) to produce the F-35; but if I want to understand what it costs to develop the F-35, or to develop the software that runs its various systems, that data is a lot more elusive.  Another factor that complicates is the fact that organizations will often invest internally to grow a technology in order to win a contract.  This data is not accounted to the project but rather to the IRAD monies.

Here’s where I see the real power of predictive analytics for our customers.  We are currently involved in several engagements where we are providing tools and mentoring to help our customers grow internal data collection and analysis centers where they can use predictive analytics to grow cost estimation successes with their projects

If someone wanted to take courses to learn how to work in cost estimation or predictive analytics, what core skills and areas of knowledge should they already have in order to be prepared for the coursework?

Clearly, math and statistics are important skill sets to build cost models or to use industry tools effectively.  I think it’s also important to have a good background in engineering, software, manufacturing processes, etc. depending on the types of estimation (or estimation models) you expect to do.  So if you’re going to work for Boeing as an estimator or model builder, having some knowledge of avionics and composite materials would facilitate the conversations that you as the estimator may need to have with the engineering staff.

When I look for new cost research analysts for my group, I find that systems engineers and industrial engineers offer a great broad-brush knowledge that makes a good base for the kinds of studies we have to do.  In some organizations, the people they hire for estimation have mostly a financial background. While there are aspects of a financial background that are important to estimation, for the kind of estimation that our clients usually do, having a technical background is often key.

With the growing capabilities of artificial intelligence, how will it impact cost estimation and/or predictive analytics over the next ten years?

Technology increases such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and big data are all phenomena that will offer great opportunities to help estimators better translate what they learn from historical projects into knowledge that’s vital for successful estimation of future projects.  Not that they will make predicting an uncertain future an exact science; there will always be uncertainty around cost estimates for lots of reasons. Humans will still be optimistic and driven by motivations other than a singular quest for the truth, things happen in projects that impact costs that are impossible to predict, brand new technologies can’t be fully understood based on an examination of older technologies, and the list goes on.

Basically, technology advances will absolutely improve the ability of cost estimators to learn from their past. But will artificial intelligence techniques help us to nail the cost of the next advances in artificial technology, especially the ones we haven’t conceived yet? Maybe they’ll help us get closer.

Thinking about exploring cost estimation, predictive analytics, or another type of occupation? View our open courses today!

How to Reduce Your Stress While Preparing for Your PMP Certification

Not only is the PMP certification highly-regarded among corporate teams, the exam is also very difficult. The pressure is intense for many project managers who are seeking their PMP certification, but there are also ways to reduce your stress as you prepare for this difficult but important exam. Continue reading “How to Reduce Your Stress While Preparing for Your PMP Certification”

Thinking About Changing Careers? Start Here

Your professional interests have expanded far beyond your current career path, and it’s time for a change. Where do you start?

If you’re not sure how to begin changing careers, an assessment of your current skills may be in order. Maybe there is another career path you could take using some or all of the skills you already have. Some professional advice could help you determine whether your skills will transfer to another occupation.

How Much of a Change is Needed?

Building on existing skills may be the easiest or fastest way to change careers, but it may not be the most desirable if you can’t get enough of a change that way. One way to determine whether a different job will be better for you is to try to get a few informational interviews to see what it’s really like to do that job.

Fools Rush In

Jumping into a new career before taking the time to investigate it thoroughly may lead to a situation where when the newness wears off, you end up in the same unhappy place you are now, and you have to undergo the process of changing careers all over again.

Taking your time to investigate different careers and find out what they are really like will prevent a repeat of history and help you to determine what career will actually make you happy in the long run. If you’re planning a career change, a good rule of thumb is to always think about your long-term goals and happiness.

What’s Driving the Change?

In all career changes, one or a few factors are really driving the change. Determining what those factors are will help you know what to pursue and what to avoid as a career going forward. If you are burned out from constantly dealing with people, you will not want to become a social worker or counselor or teacher. On the other hand, if your current career is so isolating that you feel lonely, a job where you have more contact with people may be just what you need.

Other aspects of a career worth considering may be the salary, the level of stress or pressure involved, and whether there are quotas or sales requirements involved. Unless a higher salary is an absolute need, don’t be afraid to start in an entry-level position and work your way up as time goes on.

For some careers, you may be able to get your prospective employer to provide some of the training you need for your new career. If you do need additional training, however, CCSU offers many different continuing education courses that can provide needed skills for many of the most sought-after careers today. View open courses to see if you can benefit from skills training we offer.

Expert Interview Series: Todd Macey, President of Vital Learning, on Why Most Management Training Programs Are Lacking

Todd Macey is the president of Vital Learning, where he leads a world-class team and partner network to deliver award-winning leadership development solutions built for today’s managers. We recently chatted with Todd about why many leadership training programs fail and how a company can effectively develop its managers so that they can help achieve the organization’s goals.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why are you so passionate about leadership training?

Throughout my career, I’ve had plenty of experiences with both good managers and bad managers. Whether I was working for a good manager or a bad manager, it had a huge impact on whether I enjoyed the job. I’ve worked for some pretty horrible managers, which both incentivized me to do better as a leader myself and developed my passion for building leadership skills early on.

I’ve seen first-hand the ineffectiveness of many training solutions. And there are a lot of bad managers out there in the world. People are commonly promoted to a management position because they are good at their previous job, but in their new role as a manager, they do not know how to get work accomplished through a team or lead others. Often, these managers are never given the fundamental skills they need to be effective, or they are put through a lecture-heavy training program that doesn’t actually help them develop the core skills they need.

My (and my company’s) passion is achieving a positive impact for people and companies by developing practical and critical management skills. We want to help rid the world of both bad managers and ineffective training solutions.

What are some of the skills that many of today’s business managers lack?

It often starts with the basic communication and leadership skills. We call these the “foundational” skills because a good manager must use these skills every day.  These include how to communicate clearly and concisely, know your audience, and use active listening skills. Next, today’s managers need to know how to involve team members in decisions, create a collaborative motivating environment, and focus discussions around facts and observable behaviors instead of attitudes or opinions. Another area where we often see people struggle is learning how to effectively provide feedback and coach others. Lots of managers, especially new managers, don’t delegate as often as they should, which does a disservice to themselves and their team. The most difficult management skills to master are the ones that often involve emotional reactions from team members. These include handling complaints, resolving conflicts, and disciplining employees.

Is there any truth at all to the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Is there a certain age of a manager after which it gets really difficult for him or her to develop new skills or learn new ways of doing things?

There is some truth to that statement, but I would say that it is never too late to learn good fundamental management skills. What happens when managers are never provided with a good framework for how to be effective is they will usually learn these skills slowly and very painfully on the job. Often, bad habits and poor workarounds are developed. Without a good framework, many new managers do not last long in their leadership position. Sixty percent of new managers fail within their role (i.e., are let go or demoted) within the first 24 months.

It is always valuable to provide managers with a good framework of skills regardless of their experience level. Managers who are used to a certain way of doing things may have to adjust their existing approach, which can be more difficult than learning with a blank slate. But experienced managers have, by necessity, already tried different tactics on the job and have likely seen the consequences of not leading the right way. This can give the experienced managers extra motivation and a structure to build upon.

Do you have any suggestions for how company leaders can convince managers that they are in need of leadership training?

The most impactful approach a senior leadership team can take is to help managers become committed to developing themselves as individuals and professionals. If the managers see the value in training (versus just being told it’s a requirement), they will approach it as a great investment of their time. A good first step is showing current managers (and high-potential employees) what building their skills will do for them and their career. Having the right skills will help them be more effective at their job, make their work days better, and can lead to bonuses, promotions, career growth, etc.

Getting managers to be fully committed to their own development can take some time. It may mean experiencing a few classes, applying the skills on the job, and seeing the impact this has. Since a lot of us have been through ineffective training, some people come into training sessions with the mentality that this is a waste of time. But what we’ve seen over the years is that even highly doubtful employees tend to realize over time the value of developing their own skills.

Is it possible for someone to improve their “soft skills” without training or practicing these skills in a face-to-face environment?

Yes, certainly. Participants do not need to be face-to-face to have excellent practice opportunities. Our courses provide practice scenarios throughout the experience, presenting short situations and asking the student to respond. Managers can get quality practice and develop the confidence they need to apply skills back on the job in both in-person and virtual environments.

As technology improves and becomes more accessible, virtual skill practice will continue to become more effective. For example, using virtual reality to fully immerse managers in realistic conversations with their team members will create an even more powerful version of the video-based scenarios we have today.

What steps do you take to ensure that managers who complete your leadership training programs actually retain and use the knowledge they learned?

We place a lot of emphasis on developing skills over time. Just like learning to drive or ski, it takes continual practice to become an excellent manager. Instilling these critical management skills means lots of practice handling various situations to build your comfort level and confidence.

The initial classroom or online course is a good first step. But that’s just the beginning. There are a variety of follow-up practice opportunities and resources so that skills become ingrained and are actually used on the job. At the end of the day, that’s what is most important to us.

Also, we have a free reinforcement app that gives participants additional short practice scenarios for about a month and a half after the initial training. Participants are assigned exercises after the course to help them retain their knowledge and skills. Follow-up skill practice sessions are built in, and materials are made available for “just in time” learning. Plus, we provide various job aids and resources to assist managers in using the correct framework back on the job.

Finish this sentence: “The biggest improvement that companies tend to notice after their managers complete their leadership training is…”

…that company objectives are executed more frequently and with higher quality. Managers who communicate effectively, create a collaborative environment, and can get work accomplished through their team will be able to execute the company’s strategic vision. The manager is typically the critical link to quality outcomes.

Having good managers in place has a powerful ripple effect. If managers at the company are using proper fundamental skills, we often see a resulting increase in employee engagement and morale, job satisfaction, and retention. The result is cost savings as well as revenue growth for the company.

In the future, what skills must effective managers learn and master in order for them to be successful?

Management skills, in my opinion, are generally timeless. How to communicate effectively, properly delegate, structure a coaching conversation, etc. doesn’t change much over time even as our world and our workplace transform radically. However, what does evolve significantly over time is how these core management skills are delivered and practiced.

Thirty years from now, the key concepts, skills, and framework for how to be an effective manager will be largely the same as they are today. But we will see major advancements in how these concepts and skills are learned and delivered. As people’s needs shift over time, learning and development will need to continually evolve along with them. This is something that continues to make me excited about the future of our company and the future of our industry.

Could you use some help with your management skills? View CCSU’s open courses now.

7 Professional Benefits of Strong Presentation Skills

A Harris poll showed that 70 percent of American employees thought that having strong presentations skills was critical to their success on the job. Still, many professionals are fearful of making presentations and avoid them because they don’t have the skills they need.

The following are some professional benefits of strong presentation skills.

1. The ability to get jobs and promotions.

Professionals who don’t present well are less likely to get the jobs and promotions they want. Job interviews are very similar to a presentation in many ways, and being able to out-present the competition is essential. Similarly, many upper-level jobs require presentation skills, so you will be evaluated, even informally, on whether you have the necessary skills before a promotion is given.

2. The ability to represent your company and products well.

Even if you aren’t in sales, you are in some ways. Everything you say and do in public and in the community reflects on your brand, so having strong presentation skills will give you, and your company, the credibility you need to hold onto and increase market share.

3. The ability to avoid miscommunication.

Miscommunication is a major cause of stress and problems in the workplace. Being able to present yourself clearly and well will help you avoid miscommunication, which will make the work environment less stressful. It will also give you a leg up on the competition to be able to say what you mean and mean what you say.

4. The ability to be brief and to the point. 

Brevity may or may not be the soul of wit, but the fact is, people appreciate someone who doesn’t waste time talking for an hour when they could say what needs to be said in 15 minutes. People naturally gravitate toward those who don’t bore them, and who respect their time and don’t waste it.

5. The ability to be a leader. 

Strong presenters are leaders. If you want to be a leader, strong presentation skills aren’t just nice to have, they are absolutely necessary. Your presentation skills can guide and direct your team and inspire your colleagues to do their best in the work they do.

6. The ability to express the best of yourself. 

Have you ever thought that you don’t express yourself to others nearly as well as you do in private? Developing your presentation skills will allow the best of what’s inside you to come out so that others can see the real you all the time. Bonus: You will be able to show the real you to your family and friends better, too.

7. The ability to improve your team, company, and industry.

Chances are, you have important things to say, and you owe it to your team, your company, and your entire industry to learn how to say them well and make the contributions you can make to the world.

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