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Several months ago a friend invited me to a local theater to catch a stand-up comedy show. The show featured amateur comedians fresh from their “Intro to Stand-Up” class. The show was hit-and-miss—let’s face it: the early learning stages of comedy can be cringeworthy—but the most noticeable thing was that I recognized many of the faces. They were all copywriters I had worked with years before during a brief freelance stint at an advertising agency. Turns out, the agency had paid for them all to take the stand-up class, as part of a package that provides funding for career skills development. While the class was fun, it actually had tangible benefits: helping the writers learn to write tighter copy, with punchier taglines and extra wordplay.

Comedy training may not suit every career path, but learning new skills—or improving ones you already have—can have big payoffs. Classes and training can keep you up to date on current trends in your field, keep you in touch with the ever-changing technology that affects most businesses, and help keep you invested and interested in your work. Oh, and here’s the best benefit: the more you know and the more skills you have, the more leverage you have in terms of base pay, raises, and promotions.

And there’s no reason you should ever pay for training. One of the easiest and most common ways to obtain training for free is to do what those copywriters did: see if your company has some kind of budget or program for job training and skills development. Check your benefits package, ask your HR rep, or if appropriate, check with your manager for details on your company’s policy.

Online Ed to the Rescue
If your company doesn’t provide reimbursement or free training—or if you’re in HR and looking to supplement what your company does offer—there are hundreds, if not thousands, of online classes in almost any subject. Coursera, edX, and Alison are three of the most popular sites, and while they charge for many courses, they also offer a wide range that are free or can be subsidized by financial aid. A quick caveat: even if a site is well-known, check with your company to see if they recognize the site’s certification and/or accreditation for the skills you’re interested in learning. Even if they don’t, it still might be worth taking that site’s courses.

Founded by two Stanford computer science professors, Coursera has more than 2,000 courses, 180 specializations, and 4 degrees to choose from. You can pick and choose or follow a specialization or degree path. Courses are taught by instructors and professors from well-known, accredited institutions, and in a variety of languages.

In 2012, Harvard University and MIT joined forces to create edX, which offers free courses in pretty much any subject from major universities and institutions, including Ivy League schools and Microsoft. edX also has an extension called, which focuses primarily on business and career skills, from computer science to management to workforce development. MOOC stands for “massive open online courses,” which is a fancy way of saying the number of participants is unlimited.

Straightforward and easy to use, Alison is one of the largest and most popular free education sites. Alison offers individual courses, or you can follow a “learning path” with a combination of courses selected by Alison instructors and experts. Example paths include Management Skills; English Language Studies; and Google and Business. Completing the path requires around 18 to 20 hours of study. Single certificate courses require just a few hours each.

Ultimately, any of these sites are a great way to add to your skills; choosing one boils down to which user experience you prefer. Give them a shot and find the one that works best for you—after all, they’re free!

Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.


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