As I look back on life from the half-century mark, I can see I made my share of mistakes. One of my biggest financial regrets is my failure to maintain my valuable technical skills during the years I was raising a family. My hope is that my experience may help a younger woman consider all her options.
I left Purdue University in 1984 with a degree in industrial engineering. I was only twenty-one years old when I stumbled into the greatest opportunity of the eighties: actuarial science. At that time, actuaries were in great demand and short supply. There were few actuarial science programs, so companies hired math majors and taught them on the job while paying their new hires to study and pass the series of exams that culminated in the FSA (Fellow of the Society of Actuaries.)
As an engineer, I had a less rigorous math background than the math majors, but was hired for my strong FORTRAN programming skills. Companies in Chicago were fiercely competitive for mathematical talent in the eighties and headhunters were constantly trying to lure actuarial assistants with higher pay and better opportunities. It was a fun time to be working, with companies begging for talent instead of talent begging for a job!
In 1989, my husband and I became parents. In my typical, all-or-nothing fashion, I embraced motherhood with gusto. My husband became the breadwinner while I cared for our children at home. By 2001, we had six children. For all those years, I did nothing to maintain my contact with the business world. I took no classes to update my programming skills or to maintain my other technical skills. I enjoyed nursing babies, teaching preschoolers to read, sewing clothes for the family, and even canning all summer long. I was living my "Little House on the Prairie" dream. I gave no thought to what I would do after the children were grown.
When our youngest child entered school, I had to build a new resume from scratch. I earned a master's degree in library science, hoping to land a position as an academic librarian at one of the many colleges in my city. I would have been better off if I had invested some time and money in continuing to take actuarial exams after I left the workforce or in pursuing an MBA in the evenings while I worked in Chicago. Instead, I waited too long to earn a low-value degree in a declining job market.
Let the lesson be this: try to keep multiple options open by maintaining and improving skills you already have and learning new skills whenever possible. My children would not have suffered if I had taken some time to study while they were young. With more flexible education options available today, young mothers have a chance to maintain a toehold in the professional world as insurance against a tough economy.
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