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Career Planning

Learning by Association

You can get ahead in your career through learning by career association.

Susan Aaron, The Learning Coach

June 04, 2008

Learning by Association

Your job requires more than the allotted 40 hours, and you don't have time to put another set of letters after your name. Still, you want to keep up with changes in your industry and career. One place to start is through a career or industry association. After all, if there's one out there for Women's Pro-Rodeo, chances are there's one out there for what you do.

Barbara Stoler, director of career development and outreach for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and Heath Row, founder of Fast Company's Company of Friends, offer some insights on how professional associations can help you.


The traditional mode of education for professional associations is the conference. IEEE and Fast Company both use this method. IEEE is involved in more than 300 conferences each year, either as a sponsor or cosponsor. "We act as a consulting body to those that run the conferences and offer technical expertise," Stoler says. The conferences feature seminars and tutorials, one- or two-day short courses on a new technology and how to use it on the job.

Fast Company also sponsors semiannual conferences called "Real Time" that include people featured in the magazine. "This is where the magazine comes to life," Row says.


National and international professional associations often have geographically dispersed subgroups. The central office may help the largely autonomous chapters with content and organization, but the group's character is strictly up to its members. IEEE has 300 of these units in more than 150 countries, many of them offering their own educational opportunities through local seminars and workshops. Row started Company of Friends at Fast Company. There are now 40,000 people in 35 countries who gather in groups called "cells." Row describes Company of Friends as "people who connect to the ideals of the magazine. They gather online and offline to help each other build skills, and solve problems." Fast Company provides each cell with a Web space and tools to help "make the magazine's ideas locally specific and personally productive."

The educational merit of networking with your peers through seminars and discussion cannot be overestimated. Unlike what you'll find in a book or most classes, talking with your peers gives you dynamic information on your industry in your location. What people are earning, what they're learning down the street, who is succeeding and why are all things you can learn from networking.

Learning Materials

Many professional associations offer their own learning materials and discounts on related books and magazines. IEEE's educational wing produces self-study materials and video tutorials while the organization's Web site offers a 10 percent discount off Web-based courses from University of Washington, Stevens Institute, Pace University, US Open University, NJIT and NTU. Through alliances with the Harvard Business School Press, IEEE members can also buy books and case studies at a discount.

Fast Company and its Web site are the main learning materials available to its community. A section of the Web site, called FC Learning, organizes the articles into a reference library and discussion forum.

Toward Certification or Licensing

The primary mission of many professional associations is to maintain standards in their industries. So associations usually promote the certification or licensing of members. The connection between the association and certification or licensing varies with the association. The American Bar Association, for example, provides accreditation to qualifying law schools. State bar associations administer the licensing exams to potential lawyers. The ABA offers information to its members on how to best prepare for those exams. The IEEE engages in political action to influence state licensing boards and also helps prep its members for exams.


Unlike newsletters of the past, today's professional association Web sites can reach their members anytime, anyplace. Fast Company members can network and discuss issues 24 hours a day online. Even the local cells communicate through their online sites. New material is made available in an instant, and older material is accessible through an archive. Professional associations have been around for centuries as a way of helping professionals advance. Education is a natural extension of that mission. Taking advantage of an association's learning opportunities is a great way to keep up with your industry without sacrificing your free time or submitting to a schedule.

Quick Glossary

Accreditation: Evaluation of an institution or program by an independent accrediting body. Sometimes an individual's education's accreditation status affects certification and licensing.

Certification: Status awarded to qualifying individuals within a profession.

Licensing: Status awarded to qualifying individuals of professions that, by law, must prove a level of proficiency prior to practice.

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