By Rebecca Kern

If you're considering changing careers or have lost a job and want to learn new skills, an online certificate program may be what you need. "Certificate programs are a solution for those who want to get a short-term, highly career-oriented, compressed program to get out into the job market," says Carol Aslanian, the senior vice president of market research at EducationDynamics, a higher education marketing company. These programs are offered through strictly online institutions, such as Kaplan Continuing Education, as well as the online arms of traditional campus-based schools, like Drexel University Online or University of California-Berkeley Extension .

There are primarily two types of people enrolling in certificate programs: those advancing in a current career or those looking to change careers, Aslanian says. "Certificates can be geared to the highly educated who need a sellable skill or the less educated who are not ready or [do not] want to enter a degree program but who want a credential to get a quick-fix job," she says.

These certificate programs are more affordable and less time consuming than bachelor's or master's programs. They range from $2,000 to $4,000 in tuition and generally take one to two years to complete. The courses can also be taken for academic credit, with the option of applying the credits toward a bachelor's or master's degree program within that institution, says Kenneth Hartman, the academic director for Drexel University Online. "These certificates offer a fast track to a new career or an attractive way to specialize within a career," he says. A person can start a new career once he or she gets the certificate and then continue to take part-time online classes toward a degree to become more marketable, he adds.

Certificates can also be taken as part of a continuing education program that is not for academic credit. These noncredit certificate programs are particularly attractive for working adults who have already earned a bachelor's or a master's degree but want short-term training that meets the needs of an employer, says Barbara Sonderling, the chief academic officer for Kaplan Continuing Education.

The benefit of earning a certificate online is the flexibility to work on your own schedule while keeping a full-time job, says Wayne Smutz, the executive director for Penn State's World Campus, the university's online education program. Also, many employers offer tuition reimbursement for continued education in a related field, he says. "However, most of the time employees don't take advantage of them, and they really should, especially in this type of environment, where developing a set of skills is absolutely critical to stay at the forefront of where the job market is going," he says.

Additionally, online certificate programs offer a fast way to learn the newest technology and skills in continually developing careers. Most professions these days are using technologies, particularly in the communications world and in information technology, says Ayn Fox, a career coach with, an online education resource. "Learning the latest and greatest in a field enhances an employee's contribution to their employer," Hartman says. "In this day and age, where employers are downsizing, the more that you can do to strengthen your ability to contribute to your organization, the better you're going to be in terms of preserving your job."

There has been a noticeable increase in certificate enrollments in fields that are seeing employment growth, which include information technology, healthcare, and education. Within information technology, "certification-driven" programs are popular because they prepare students to take specific certification exams, such as Microsoft and Cisco software programs, Sonderling says.

Certificates in project management are also very popular and can be applied to a wide variety of careers, says Jason Lemon, the associate dean of University of California-Berkeley Extension. The program management certificate is applicable for people who want to change careers as well as those who want to enhance their skills in their current career. In the early days, this certificate was popular in the engineering and information technology fields, but now students from almost every kind of business--including pharmaceutical, finance, public management, and retail--earn this certificate. There are no prerequisites for admission to the certificate program, but a bachelor's degree is recommended. "People have come to understand that project management is a key competency that will improve implementation in any new effort," Lemon says.

Within the healthcare field, the certificate in medical billing and coding has been popular recently, Hartman says. The interest in this certificate is directly related to the changes occurring within national healthcare and the aging of the baby boom generation, he says. "There is a huge demand for medical billing and records administrators, which this certificate prepares you for," he says. The only educational prerequisite is a high school diploma, Hartman says. The academic credit earned from the certificate can also be applied toward the completion of a bachelor's of science in health services administration. Since no prior education in healthcare is required, this certificate is appropriate for a person just entering the workforce or someone switching from a nonmedical career.

Corliss Ford was looking to advance in the nursing field. With the help of a certificate in forensic nursing from Kaplan Continuing Education, she landed a job as the director of nursing with a home healthcare company in Phoenix. After completing this certificate, she went on to earn a bachelor's of science in nursing from Kaplan University and is currently pursuing a master's of science in forensic psychology from Walden University. "The certificate definitely was one of the reasons I got this position, and for me that was a big step in my career and a big pay raise," she says.

In the education field, a post-bachelor's teaching certificate is another certificate program experiencing increased enrollment. It gives a person with a bachelor's degree a fast route to a new career, Hartman says. "This certificate program offers a quick way to complete the requirements necessary to get into the classroom and begin to teach children," he says. Drexel University Online's post-bachelor's teaching certificate is recognized by Pennsylvania and by most other states, he says.

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