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IN THIS JOB MARKET, KEEP LEARNING

More and more adults are returning to college to give themselves an option.

The economy stinks.

Annual pay raises barely match the inflation rate.

You're just happy a pink slip hasn't arrived in your mailbox - yet.

Rather than tread water at a dead-end job, more adults are returning to college during the economic downturn. The State University System of Florida reports 13.4 percent more people applied to graduate school in 2007 than the year before.

"This is the largest increase in graduate school applications, in both number and percentage, as far back as our records go," said state Chancellor Mark Rosenberg. "Our universities are helping people in the Florida work force prepare for career changes and new opportunities. By giving them richer knowledge and training, we are also helping our students insulate themselves against uncertainty in the job market."

Doom and gloom seem to permeate every major announcement about the real estate market, the U.S. dollar's value against the euro, the unemployment rate and dwindling budgets of government agencies.

"When there's a down economy, people are more self-reflective about their careers," said Michael Savarese, graduate studies director at Florida Gulf Coast University. "Their dollars are tightened, and they could stand to use some money."

Job categories that are growing most rapidly generally require more education and skills, said Rebecca Rust, director of the labor market statistics center at Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation.

"But when you look at the number of jobs gained, most of them are low-wage jobs," she says.

FGCU's graduate program reflects a typical "what's hot" list. Savarese said business, education and health-related master's degrees are the most popular programs because students know jobs await them upon graduation.

To Jennifer Ruscalleda, not having a college degree means working her tail off and still not being able to pay her bills on time.

"With the economy the way it is now, you can't survive anymore without a degree," said Ruscalleda, a full-time education paraprofessional, or teacher's aide.

Education is a field where more degrees clearly equal more dollars. Beyond just cash, a teacher cannot transition into administration without a master's degree. The same story also holds true in the private sector.

"Look at who's getting promoted," said Curt Bradbury, center director with Career and Service Centers of Southwest Florida, an agency that connects employers and job seekers. "Whether their graduate degree has anything to do with their current job has little to do with a promotion.

"Employers are looking for that extra effort, that you're seeking knowledge and proving yourself to complete that degree, or going back to school at night."

Fast-growing occupational categories

The state's five fastest-growing occupational categories during the past year, according to Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation:

- Educational services: 6 percent.

- Arts, entertainment and recreation: 4.2 percent.

- Accommodation and food services: 2.9 percent.

- Health care and social assistance: 2.8 percent.

- Local government:2.8 percent.

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