Module 1: Career Pathways 101

Career Pathways:  Connecting Education to Economic Development

It would be an understatement to say that we live in challenging times. We wake up to daily news headlines that bombard us with demands for economic growth and the ability to stave off global competition. Today, as never before, Americans look to our nation’s business community to create innovative strategies for providing jobs and bolstering American competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Yet to fulfill that task, companies need access to an abundant pool of well-qualified workers. Those workers will ideally be produced in the communities in which these companies reside, through local high school and college programs that prepare students who are college and career ready. However, the ideal situation is not the reality in many communities and American industry is facing a skills gap that continues to widen. In too many communities,

Along with these challenges that threaten a seamless pipeline from high school to college, demographic shifts are making the education enterprise more challenging every day. Our student population is more diverse in many ways, including a broader range of learning styles and needs. Yesterday’s educational system is inadequate to meet today’s realities.

Thriving in Challenging Times, National Career Pathways Network and Institute for a Competitive Workforce, 2012

Let’s take a look at what will be required for employment in the next few years. As this graphic indicates, by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require “some college” (an industry certificate) or better, yet you can see that as a nation, we are not graduating enough students to enter that college pipeline, much less complete it. As students progress from one level of education to another, they exercise choice in determining what directions they will take and how far they will go. The reason many employers struggle to find qualified workers is that the pipeline has become weak. Too many students exit before they have gone far enough to gain the skills necessary to meet the needs of employers. This dire situation should certainly give us reason to pause and reflect. Unfortunately when we do, what we see is a gaping skills gap. Career Pathways offers a promising approach to narrow that skills gap by plugging the leaky pipeline from high school to college.
Sources: Anthony Carnevale, et al. (June 2013). Recovery 2020. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Complete College America, 2010

A Promising Solution

Career Pathways, if widely implemented, has the potential to significantly increase employers’ access to high-quality, home-grown employees and to give the employees and their families opportunities for rewarding lives. Career Pathways programs and services take many forms across the nation, but, as defined by the National Career Pathways Network, a career pathway is:

…a coherent, articulated sequence of rigorous academic and career/technical courses, commencing in high school and leading to an associate degree, baccalaureate degree and beyond, and industry-recognized certification and/or state regulated license. Pathways are developed, implemented, and maintained by partnerships involving employers, educators, and community leaders. Career Pathways are available to all students, including adult learners, and lead to a rewarding career.

Any career pathways program should connect three key components—secondary, postsecondary, and employer.




Building the Case for Career Pathways

Building advocacy for career pathways programs throughout your community should be a key priority early in the development process. Developing partnerships among stakeholders will be essential to early success and momentum building. As you begin conversations in your community about career pathways, have talking points ready to share, pointing out how students, employers, and communities all can benefit from career pathways. Such benefits may include:

Above is a snapshot of a Career Pathways system that supports student transitions between educational levels and results in postsecondary credentials.  Each entry and exit point is critical to ensuring learners benefit from a well-connected series of instructional opportunities that are intentionally designed to give them a broad set of foundational skills as well as the specific technical skills needed to be successful in  high-demand occupations. Whether a learner is in high school, and they’re entering a program from what we would consider a traditional pipeline, or a learner is an adult who may or may not have yet completed their high school education, there is an on-ramp for them and multiple steps on the pathway that allow them to earn credentials, certificates and degrees – go to work – and return as needed for further education.

These connected, sequential steps on the pathway should:

Ultimately, career pathways build a culture that enables learner success.

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Above is a detailed example of steps along a career pathway from South Central College in Minnesota. This career “map” depicts the multiple entry and exit points of a career pathways program in manufacturing, spanning K-12, community college, adult education, apprenticeship, and university levels of education and training. It also identifies the academic and industry credentials earned at each level.

Regardless of the terminology used or model implemented, career pathways are about making it easier for all learners to succeed in education and careers, ultimately strengthening our workforce and economy. Career pathways smooth the road ahead by eliminating roadblocks, streamlining services, accelerating instruction and providing the support needed by learners of any age to stay the course.

Within a career pathways program are essential ingredients for participant success:

  1. Programs of study aligned to area industry growth sectors
  2. Active employer engagement
  3. Career awareness, exploration, development
  4. Rigorous, sequential, hands-on contextualized curricula
  5. Employability skills development
  6. Multiple entry and exit points
  7. Work-based learning opportunities
  8. Continuum of certificate and degree options aligned to industry credentials
  9. Alternative scheduling options and support services for adult learners
  10. Collaboration among local/regional stakeholders

How you choose to gather and combine these ingredients will be based on local economic climate, employer demand, capacity of your educational institutions, and buy-in from community stakeholders. In the next module we’ll discuss how partnerships with your stakeholders will build the foundation for your career pathways efforts and help guide the development of your unique local “blend” of career pathways.