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eLearningFreelancingGeneral DiscussionInstructional Design

How to Get Started With Learning & Development

By August 17, 2021One Comment

A decade ago, I would have thought you were insane if you told me that I’d be creating learning solutions for well-known companies. So, how exactly did I get into Learning & Development in the first place—and how might you do the same?

A Commonly Unexpected Journey

Like most people, I never planned to end up in this industry or imagined that this would be my career of choice. Teaching music in K-12 schools had long been my dream. But when that plan didn’t pan out, I pursued my Master’s Degree in Adult Education and Communications Technology.

That’s where I first heard of Instructional Design or the Learning and Development industry.

With a lack of visibility and no well-known career path, breaking into this industry can be challenging. A quick Google search for how to get started returns many pages of results. Here’s an example of a search just for getting started in eLearning.

Google Results for "Getting Started with eLearning" search.

As great as all of these posts are, most of them reflect one particular niche that may or may not be what you are interested in or looking for in a career.

If you’re looking to get started within Learning & Development or the eLearning industry but aren’t sure what path to take—this series of posts is for you. In this first post, I’ll share three questions to ask yourself, which will make the rest of your path into the industry smoother.

What Do You Want To Do?

One of the challenges with getting started in the Learning & Development industry is how large, yet relatively undefined, it is. Although there are some standard requirements to the field, variability exists between different roles and organizations. For anyone interested in the area, this can make it challenging to navigate.

You need to learn about the types of roles that you find interesting—even at an introductory level.

Here’s a list of considerations to help you answer this question:

Do you want to design or develop training solutions—or would you prefer a role in administering, supporting, or facilitating training?

Some organizations separate these functions into distinct roles, while others combine functional Learning & Development areas into a single position.

What excites you more—working with people or creating content and technology?

If you enjoy working directly with people, perhaps facilitation or design-centric roles would be better options.

If creating content and technology excites you, the development part of the process might be more fulfilling.

Do you want to be a specialist or a 1-stop-do-it-all-shop?

If you enjoy the idea of mastering a specific skill set, being a Learning & Development specialist is for you—but it could mean you have fewer prospects.

Having a more extensive skill set can make you more marketable for a wider variety of opportunities. Still, it might mean you have a more considerable upfront investment to make in terms of gaining skills and tools.

If you’re leaning towards development—are you interested in rapid-authoring or coding from scratch?

Rapid-authoring uses relatively simple tools that let you see the product as you build it. Many companies use these tools within their development to make the process easier.

Coding from scratch can be exponentially more complicated, but some projects require this type of skill set.

The answer to this question will help you determine what skills you need to develop.

Where Do You Want Work?

Once you’ve identified the type of Learning & Development role you’re interested in, the next step is to research the types of organizations you might want to work with. For instance, there are significant differences between being a part of an internal training team versus working in a consultancy or third-party vendor capacity.

Here’s a list of considerations to help you answer this question:

Is there a specific topic or industry you have experience with or are passionate about?

Sometimes, having a personal connection to an organization’s mission or line of work makes for a better mutual fit.

However, suppose you aren’t as motivated by a specific subject matter or working in a particular type of organization. In that case, that might offer the flexibility of more diverse opportunities.

Do you want to be a part of an internal training function, work with a consultancy, or be an independent contractor?

These options come with their own set of political, work/life balance, and income/compensation considerations. Here’s a high-level overview of what I think you should consider.

Being a part of an internal training team usually includes:

  • Both salaried and hourly opportunities.
  • A reliable flow of work with the same stakeholder and learner populations.
  • Office politics dictate your priorities and autonomy.
  • Benefits package of some sort (paid time-off, healthcare, retirement, etc.)
  • Your work-life balance may skew towards work and the needs of the business—long hours may be the expectation, especially if you’re salaried.

Working with a consultancy might include:

  • A mix of hourly and salaried opportunities.
  • Feast-or-Famine periods of work with diverse industries, organizations, stakeholders, and learner audiences.
  • The sales process dictates the direction and specifications of the learning solution up-front.
  • Politics focus on keeping the customer happy.
  • Benefits package of some sort (paid time-off, healthcare, retirement, etc.)
  • Your work-life balance may skew towards work and the client’s needs—long hours aren’t uncommon before a deadline or a promised quick turnaround.

Independent Contractors might expect:

  • Hourly or fixed-fee opportunities.
  • Feast-or-Famine periods of work with diverse industries, organizations, stakeholders, and learner audiences.
  • Having to generate and close their sales leads to land projects.
  • More flexibility in terms of choosing what to work on, how you work,  and when.
  • Responsible for all finances, including generating revenue, tracking expenses, and tax withholding.
  • Taking time off depends on sales and revenue generated.
  • Responsible for providing own healthcare coverage.
  • Responsible for own retirement savings.

Are you looking for temporary/contract or full-time-employee types of positions?

Temporary hire opportunities offer a bit more of the stability of a W-2 employee, but with a limited yet defined duration (e.g., weeks, months, or a few years depending on the need of the project/team.) You won’t set your hours or workflow, but you’re also not tied to the role or organization indefinitely.

Some of these opportunities are or can become a Temp-to-Hire position where if you perform well and there is a continued need beyond the original term, there is the possibility that they bring you on board full-time.

Others prefer the traditional sense of stability that comes from a full-time W-2 position.

What type of work-life balance do you want, and how consistent does it need to be?

Knowing what kind of balance you want goes along with the type of organization you want to join. 

Contracting may allow for the most flexibility in terms of defining when and how you work. But it does require that you spend time generating leads, bidding on projects, and managing finances—in addition to doing the work.

Sub-contracting is when you join a project in a specific capacity (e.g., developing modules from a finalized storyboard.) It’s an option that can allow for the work-life flexibility of contracting while reducing administrative work to maintain your business. But it does mean a smaller piece of the pie when it comes to generating income.

Depending on the organization, being a part of an internal team may be easier or more challenging to maintain your work-life balance and disengage from when necessary. Some organizations will have a culture that values a healthy work-life balance—while others might expect that you are always available. The trade-off here is that your job security is likely to be somewhat more secure on a day-to-day basis and when you do take time off.

Where do you physically want to work?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, the idea of remote work versus working from an office has been a hot-button topic. 

Working remotely is a double-edged sword. You’ll avoid having a traditional commute and can enjoy a different kind of work-life balance. However, if you work from home, it can be challenging to separate work and personal life. Some remote workers have reported working more than what they would in a traditional office.

There certainly is a special kind of energy when working side-by-side in an actual office. It’s easier to collaborate and build relationships with your coworkers. The trade-off is the time spent away from home to commute and during the work-day, but the physical separation between the workplace and your home can help manage the work-life balance.

What Skills do These Roles and Organizations Value?

Once you’ve identified what types of roles you’re interested in and the types of organizations you’d like to be a part of, it’s time to do some research. As you do,  you’ll get an idea of what skills and tools you’ll need to develop before you start applying to jobs.

Research job titles and descriptions.

Take the time to research current Learning & Development opportunities either at your target or similar organizations—the goal at this phase is to understand what they’re looking for in a candidate. 

Check job boards on LinkedIn, Indeed, or job opportunities posted on websites like the E-Learning Heroes and The eLearning Guild

Since each organization can choose what they call their specific role, here’s a list of common keywords that you’ll want to research:

  • Instructional Designer
  • Instructional Systems Designer
  • eLearning Designer
  • E-learning Developer
  • Learning Experience Designer
  • Learning Consultant
  • Learning Producer
  • Digital Designer
  • Digital Developer
  • Learning Designer
  • Learning Developer

Identify required skills and tools.

As you research roles, start a list of titles, skills, and tools that you notice across multiple postings. Although you may want to focus on a single position or organization, it’s helpful to get a broader sense of what hiring managers are targeting across companies and industries. 

In my experience, it’s better to develop skills and expertise that can apply across roles and organizations. However, it might not be true if you want to specialize in a specific area.

Next Steps

Knowing what you want to do, where you want to work, and the necessary skills give you a better idea of what you’re working towards and a path forward. 

It’s now time to start taking steps towards realizing your newfound Learning & Development career goals. In the next post, I’ll cover how to start building your skills and developing a toolbox.

Mike Jones

Hi, I'm Mike. I design and develop high-quality learning solutions that focus on outcomes—meeting the needs of the client, their organization, and their learners. As an Instructional Designer and L&D Professional, I have had extensive experience creating eLearning, blended, and traditional Instructor-led Training (ILT) in corporate, medical, and non-profit settings. My passion for lifelong learning and cutting edge technology is only furthered through collaborating with others that are just as passionate about helping people.

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