Why You Should Pursue Continuing Education
Bates, Hood & Pendleton
On at least two occasions, George Hayhoe has warned technical communicators about the future of their field. In 2002, Hayhoe exhorted technical communicators to move beyond the idea that they were “packagers of information for the technically uninitiated” (p. 397). A year later, in an interview with Barbara Giammona, he declared that if technical communicators failed to demonstrate “how [they] add value,” they were “doomed” (Giammona, 2004, p. 353). Hayhoe’s assertions might seem overly apocalyptic until one considers the explosion of overseas work in technical communication and how attractive that appears to organizations that need to cut costs. For example, every technical communicator in India has three open positions for which they can apply (Singh, 2012), and the average technical communicator earns only $17,273 per year (STC India, 2012, p. 9). In the US, a technical writer with comparable experience earns $65,500 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). You can react to this information in one of two ways. You can accept the risk of joining the ranks of those whose jobs have shipped overseas, or you can continue your education.
How will continuing my education help me?
Continuing education can benefit you in many ways:
It creates opportunities to advance in an organization.
It demonstrates that you are motivated.
It creates opportunities to network.
It enriches your life.
Let’s begin with nearly every technical communicator’s top priority: pay. Your pay can be affected by your education level. Technical communicators with a Master’s degree usually make more than technical communicators with a Bachelor’s degree. For instance, technical communicators in San Diego enjoy this incentive to continue their education. The San Diego chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) reports that a Master’s degree boosts pay by $10,200 per year (STC San Diego, 2010, p. 5).
However, maybe you have too little time to pursue another degree. In that case, you could enroll in one or two classes to improve a specialized skill set. Learning a new skill could help you earn the promotion you have pursued, and it can demonstrate your value to your organization. To demonstrate your value, Neil Perlin recommends “[becoming] more technical . . . [and] more involved in company operations” (Giammona, 2004, p. 352), which might require you to pursue education in the technical area in which your organization specializes. Hayhoe agrees, arguing that technical communicators can only improve their work as “content creators and managers” when they grasp the “technical subject domains” of their organizations (Hayhoe, 2002, p. 397). If you understand the “technical subject domain” of your organization, you improve your chance to contribute to the design process in such a way that your contribution becomes integral.
Continuing education also helps you network. You could meet peers in the profession, or you could meet likeminded professionals in other career fields. All of these people can become contacts. You can help your organization staff open positions by advising your contacts when positions open. If you leave your organization, you can use your contacts to look for a new job. Similarly, your contacts can help you find work if you decide to perform freelance work.
You might decide you want to pursue continuing education in a field other than technical communication; you don’t have to avoid that urge. You might be considering a career change, or you might just want to pursue your interests. You have more to gain from continuing your education than just a pay raise. Education connects you to the human community. You meet people whom you wouldn’t otherwise. You enlarge your knowledge when you encounter people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. You acquaint yourself with the accumulated knowledge of past scholars and practitioners alike. You learn just how much you share in common with your peers and your ancestors. You learn just how little you know. You increase your trivia knowledge.
Those last two arguments appear here for humor’s sake, but the intangible benefits of education far outweigh the monetary rewards. Additionally, continuing education does not just benefit you, it also benefits the field.
How does continuing education benefit the field?
Technical communicators often feel they must justify the worth of their profession to their colleagues (Jones 568). Outsiders tend to view their profession as static, and relegate them to the post-development production of documentation. Because their work is misunderstood, it is undervalued. When technical communicators continue their education, they contribute to a cause greater than personal growth: they solidify a professional identity. A well-defined professional identity ensures job security and increases overall job satisfaction (Hart & Conklin 399).
If you choose to continue your education, you won’t only benefit yourself: you will expand your colleagues’ understanding of your abilities, and broaden their perception of the role of technical communicators. This gesture sends a message to employers: technical communicators are versatile. Your knowledge transcends mere documentation. You proactively meet the evolving needs of your clients and employers. Taking this initiative will leave a positive impression on your employer, and emphasize the value of technical communication to your organization. It will also demonstrate the value of investing in a local, well-educated workforce, and reduce the probability of outsourcing.
The idea of enhanced job security is certainly appealing, but the benefits of continuing education transcend industry. When technical communicators decide to enhance existing skills or learn new ones, they broaden the potential for scholarly inquiry in the field. When you learn about object-oriented programming, IT management, or rhetorical theory, you can apply those principles to your trade. You can share the results of this experimentation with your peers at an STC conference, or write an article detailing your findings and submit it to Technical Communication Quarterly. Perhaps you could even start your own Special Interest Group within the STC. A strong professional organization is essential to any discipline, and sharing your newly diversified skillset may spark innovation in your fellow technical communicators.
Education and the future of technical communication
Written communication skills are becoming less of an attraction and more of a given as more employers come to expect technical communicators to write well. Perhaps this trend is why some practitioners label the ability to learn new technology as the most important skill for emerging technical communicators (Highby & Cain 164). Positions for hopeful technical communicators are growing more technical and specialized; in a world where many people can write well, technical communicators can get ahead by being able to “write well and ___________.” Video editing? Usability? Web design? Information architecture? The possibilities with which technical communicators can fill that blank are nearly endless.
Technical communicators can prepare for these specialized roles in a number of ways:
Formal education: Technical communicators can take classes at either a four-year university or a community college. Employed technical communicators can search for programs that offer night or weekend classes.
Certification programs: Another option that might be particularly attractive to employed technical communicators are certification programs because they offer specialized information with less commitment than most formal education. Working technical communicators can also look into workshops and seminars as other methods of receiving education concisely.
Social media is another form of technology that is changing the roles of many technical communicators to include monitoring external communication in addition to internal. Or, perhaps a technical communicator would interact directly with a disgruntled customer via any of the popular social media platforms. This potential “writer-customer” interaction alerts technical communicators to advance their skills in diplomacy and conflict-resolution (Rauch, Morrison, and Goetz 299).
However, one of the biggest impacts of technology is not necessarily on the roles of technical communicators themselves; they will still involve the communication of technical information. Rather, one of the biggest changes ahead is the way in which technical communicators create, store, and deliver information. The evolution of various creation platforms, such as wikis and content management systems (CMS) will be something technical communicators will have to adapt to in order to stay ahead.
Maybe this article has convinced you to further your education by taking a class or attending a conference, but you cannot afford it. Fortunately, many employers recognize the long-term value of investing in their employees’ education. In 2000, Lynn A. Becker assured technical communicators that the odds of employer contribution are in their favor. Often, bosses view continuing education as integral to retaining talent, and consequently, organizational knowledge (Becker 13). In order to secure funding for your endeavor, you’ll have to prepare a convincing argument for your boss. The STC recommends preparing a memo detailing:
Long-term benefits for the company
The length of the program
Program costs (including transportation)
Whether you choose to continue your education formally or informally, the benefits of investing time and money in expanding your knowledge are innumerable. When you choose to further your education, you commit to your organization by expanding your skillset. You commit to yourself by nurturing your interests and improving your own knowledge of technical subject matter. You commit to your colleagues by expanding the boundaries of a shared professional identity, and assuming responsibility within a professional community.
Even if you don’t romanticize the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the decision to further your education could result in pragmatic benefits: more money, increased responsibility, and a fresh set of contacts. Technical communication has changed dramatically in the past ten years, and will continue to change as long as organizations find new ways to transmit information. By committing to lifelong learning, you will be on the vanguard of emerging trends, which will increase your marketability. With so many ways to expand your knowledge, you are certain to find a method that fits into your busy schedule. Regardless of your perspective, continuing your education is a wise choice that have a long-term positive impact on you, your employer, and the field of technical communication.
Becker, Lynn A. (2000). Back to school: Convincing the boss. Intercom 47(7), 12-14.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013, March 29). Occupational employment statistics. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273042.htm
Giammona, B. (2004). The future of technical communication: How innovation, technology, information management, and other forces are shaping the future of the profession.” Technical Communication, 51(3), 349–366.
Hayhoe, G.F. (2002). Core competencies: The essence of technical communication.” Technical Communication, 49(4), 397-398.
Singh, G. (2012, December 7). Technical writer salaries: How much do technical writers earn? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://technicalwritingtoolbox.com/2012/12/07/technical-writer-salaries/
STC. How to Justify Attending the STC Summit in Today’s Economy. Retrieved from http://summit.stc.org/program-info/convince-your-boss/
STC San Diego. (2010). STC San Diego chapter 2010 salary survey. Retrieved from http://www.stc-sd.org/employment/2010_SalarySurvey.pdf
STC India. (2012, November 30). 2012 salary survey of Indian technical communicators. Retrieved from http://www.stc-india.org/wp-content/uploads/STC_India_2012_Salary_Survey_Results.pdf