The Old College Try: Adult Learners Turn to NJIT for a Second Chance at More Satisfying Careers

Virtual Reality: Davey Dobbs, 36, is an online student in NJIT's Master of Science in Civil Engineering degree program with a focus in transportation. He plans to graduate in 2016 and use his new degree to change careers.

Like most college students this time of the year, Davey Dobbs is preparing for final exams. But unlike many of his peers, the Atlanta native is a 36-year-old, single father with four children and a full-time job at a well-respected firm. So why would he enroll in an academically challenging Master of Science in Civil Engineering (MSCE) online degree program at NJIT?

“I may have chosen the wrong career,” he admits.

It’s been reported that nearly 44 percent of young college graduates are on the wrong career path, and 64 percent of high school students choose a major that doesn’t fit their academic strengths and interests.

In 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa penned an explosive book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” underscoring the increase in academic disengagement during college and the rise in “adrift students”: college graduates who fail to learn anything worthwhile in school, struggle to transition from college to the workforce, can’t find decent jobs, still live at home with their parents and view themselves as valueless employees.

“Adrift students come to NJIT in need of guidance, and we help them find their way,” assures Gale Tenen Spak, associate vice president of Continuing and Distance Education. “They tend to hold degrees in nontechnical, liberal arts majors like philosophy, psychology, social sciences, history and English. It’s good, as an undergraduate, to pursue what really interests you. It gives you a broad critical thinking ability, but there has to be a balance. The world has changed. It’s harder to get a job that earns good money.”

Dobbs had a clear vision for his future when he earned a master’s degree in urban planning and a graduate professional certificate in geographic information science from the University of Arizona (he also holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Georgia)—but his post-graduation plans fell through.

“I hoped to use my urban planning degree to go into public service,” he recalls, “but landing a coveted urban planner job with the city or county turned out to be a lot harder than I anticipated.”

After graduate school, Dobbs ended up moving back to Georgia to work for a transportation firm. He currently resides in Irvine, Calif., where he works as an urban planner and deputy project manager for AECOM, a global provider of architecture, design, engineering and construction services.

“I write huge environmental impact reports. Writing thousand-page documents really doesn’t appeal to me anymore,” he says. “I’ve always done really well in math and science. I think black and white. And to me, engineering is a black and white profession—more precise and not open to interpretation unlike environmental planning.”

With several years of fieldwork and environmental compliance experience under his belt, Dobbs decided to change careers and become an engineer. He knew his background would give him a leg up on the competition when applying for jobs. Still, there was one glaring omission on his résumé that would serve as a major roadblock to success: the lack of an engineering degree. That’s when he turned to NJIT.

“I knew I had to go back to school to get a degree in engineering in order to switch careers,” he says, “but with a full-time job and four children, I also knew that going the traditional route—to a campus— wouldn’t be a good fit for my lifestyle.”

With a bevy of online engineering degree programs to choose from, NJIT’s MSCE degree program stood out to Dobbs because of the specialized coursework options, ability to tailor the curriculum to his needs—and the list of course requirements was much shorter compared to the other schools he considered.

“I’m 36. I’m not trying to be in school for four more years,” he says. “The other schools required me to take a year’s worth of courses I’ve already taken as a graduate student. With NJIT, I only have four course deficiencies to fulfill, and NJIT is allowing me to take those classes at a community college out here in California for really cheap.”

Nearly 75,000 employed adult learners in over 700 companies looking to move forward in their current position or embark on a new career have earned a master’s degree, graduate certificate or noncredit professional development certification at NJIT.

“There are a lot of professionals that come here to get the training needed to qualify for jobs at great companies,” says Spak, who works closely with New Jersey Department of Labor-funded talent networks and under NJIT stewardship for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology-Entrepreneurship. Her group also has won U.S. Department of Labor Training grants such as upSKILL, a consortium led by NJIT, which offers specialized IT and STEM training to underemployed and out of work professionals and veterans in New Jersey.

“These working professionals, who tend to already have graduated college, want family-sustaining careers in employable fields that earn good money,” she continues. “Well, all of the good jobs are in the exact things NJIT is known for: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Everything in the world has an IT base now.”

After completing the two-year MSCE online degree program with a focus in transportation, Dobbs plans to remain at AECOM, transition to an engineering job and ultimately earn a professional engineer license. The career change will potentially land him a $30,000-a-year salary increase. And as a single dad, the money is definitely a motivating factor.

“Three of my kids need braces!” he laughs. “Braces are expensive. I know that if I were an engineer, the money wouldn’t be an issue. I wish I had gone to school for engineering to begin with, but I do feel that it will be quite easy for me to get an engineering job because of the experience I have as an urban planner. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m on the right path. NJIT is providing me with exactly what I need to get to the next level.”

Whether you’re a seasoned professional looking for a new start or a recent college graduate meandering from one unfulfilling job to the next, NJIT can open up opportunities through education and training programs for meaningful careers in the STEM fields.

“I care to bring back students—adults—to give them a second chance to learn the skills that will keep them in the job market and advance their careers,” says Spak. “Having NJIT on the résumé has really made an incredible difference in people’s lives.”

For more information on NJIT’s vast online graduate degree programs, graduate certificate offerings and leading-edge professional development courses in fast-growing, in-demand fields, visit adultlearner.njit.edu.

By Shydale James
sjames@njit.edu