Building your career means continually learning new skills and enhancing the ones you already have. It’s an investment of your time and energy. In tough economic times you may not get the financial support you need from your company for professional development, or you may not have a job right now and need some new skills to restart your job search.

Learning isn’t limited to semester-long classes and it doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are some free or inexpensive ways to develop your skills and to get inspired.

7 Ways to Build Your Career on a Budget

1. Volunteer. Volunteer with a favorite organization to learn a new skill or practice an existing skill such as video/media, web design, marketing, business development, community organizing, public speaking, teaching, and more. I recently joined the Board of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble to get more experience in marketing, strategic planning and coordinating volunteers.

2. Check with your human resources department for career development opportunities like training workshops, leadership or management development, or other special programs. Make a suggestion if your company doesn’t offer what you need. Companies often negotiate good deals with training companies, especially for technical training such as computer classes.

3. Try free introductory classes at non-profits and other businesses. For a small investment of time, you can learn something new and decide if paying for more training is right for you. For example, The Foundation Center in San Francisco offers an excellent free introductory grant-writing session and other workshops. Many organizations have free public programs as part of their mission.

4. Check out extension classes at colleges and universities. Be sure to check for free events, guest speakers, seminars, and introductory sessions. Know that courses aimed at lifelong learners get more expensive as you move  from community colleges to state colleges to state universities to private universities. You can decide if it’s worth it to pay more for university extension classes where you’ll get better locations, convenient schedules, and comfortable classrooms with smaller class sizes.

If you’re not sure whether a class is right for you:

  • Before enrolling, don’t be afraid to email the instructor and ask questions. (You may need to do a web search on an instructor to find their contact information.)

Here’s an alternative to taking a class if you’re good at learning on your own:

  • Check the required reading lists of classes you are interested in (especially expensive classes) and get the books from the public library.

Finally, consider this:

  • Taking classes with other professionals is an excellent networking opportunity. In every extension class I’ve attended, at least one person was in the midst of a career shift or job search. The savvy ones made an effort to enlist the help of the other students and teacher to further their efforts.

5. Target your own community. For the insatiably curious: you’re surrounded by learning opportunities in your own community! It’s easy and entertaining to attend a museum lecture or a community event. Check your favorite events websites.

A few of my favorite organizations for interesting speakers and topics in the San Francisco Bay Area are The Commonwealth Club (free podcasts), City Arts & Lectures (free radio broadcasts), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (many free public programs), the Neighborhood Empowerment Network, The Long Now Foundation (free podcasts), and SPUR. Most charge $20 or less for their events. Engage in a discussion on issues important to you, get inspired.

For the artistic, art collectives occasionally have cheap or free lessons or demonstrations (Rock Paper Scissors Collective and The Crucible). Last but not least, don’t forget your public library — a tremendous resource for learning, help with research, free classes and events.

6. Take advantage of the benefits offered by professional organizations. We join them and then we forget about all the events and publications they offer that we are already paying for through our membership fees. Check their websites regularly for what’s new. Many organizations offer free publications and events on their websites.

You may need to occasionally splurge to make a big splash.  It’s true that professional conferences, events, and training are typically pricey, but it may be well worth your investment. This is precisely the time to do your homework (or attend a free event or session) before taking the plunge.  In addition to learning, professional workshops and classes with a single focus — like leadership, management, sales, design, project management — offer you an opportunity to demonstrate your talents. Motivated people who like to learn seek that quality in others.

7. Ask a co-worker. One of the advantages of working with others is the chance to learn from them. Most people are willing to share their experience. Sweeten the deal by offering to share your own talents with them in exchange — you give them tips on facilitating meetings and they help you with a software product. Leslie and I have complementary skills and we share our experience continually. Get advice on how to do this in 5 Tips for Successful Career Collaboration.

“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.” — B.B. King, quoted outside the Main Library in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina

Now, It’s Your Turn

1. Determine what you want to learn.

2. Pick the idea above that best fits your need.

3. Commit to one new learning opportunity in the next 3 months.

4. Share your own favorite ways to learn something new for free in the Comments section below.

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