A Way to Make the Pieces Fit
In a growing number of regions around the country, local leaders are working to more closely coordinate publicly funded education, from primary through post-secondary levels, with social services and workforce and economic development programs to produce a better-trained workforce and promote economic growth. Several states are actively supporting the efforts of these regional partnerships.
“Career pathways” is our term for a series of connected education and training programs and support services that enable individuals to secure employment within a specific industry or occupational sector, and to advance over time to successively higher levels of education and employment in that sector. Each step on a career pathway is designed explicitly to prepare for the next level of employment and education.
Career pathways target jobs in industries of importance to local economies. Their purpose is to create both avenues of advancement for current workers, jobseekers and future labor market entrants and a supply of qualified workers for local employers. As such, they also help to strengthen the “supply chains” that produce and keep up-to-date a region’s knowledge workforce.
Career pathways, however, cannot be purchased off the shelf. The specific form and content of a career pathway will depend on the particular industries targeted, the requirements of employment and advancement in the target sectors, and existing programs and resources for preparing workers for employment in those sectors. Building a career pathway is a process of adapting existing programs and services— and adding new ones—to enable individuals to advance to successively higher levels of education and employment in the target sectors. Where it is most effective, the career pathways process helps to transform institu- tions and organizations involved in education, employment and social services. The process strengthens cooperation between these actors in ways that improve their individual and collective capacities to respond to the needs of local residents and employers.
Community colleges often play a linchpin role in career pathways. The career pathways approach helps community colleges better align their various mission areas of workforce development, academic credentialing and transfer preparation and remediation. Students entering into adult literacy or college remedial coursework are better able to advance to and succeed in college-level programs, and all students can more readily earn post-secondary credentials and make progress toward a career. Pathways commonly feature community colleges working in partnership with other educational entities and with workforce and economic development agencies, as well as with employer and labor groups and social service providers, to ensure that investments in education and training pay off for their region’s economic vitality.
Other common characteristics of career pathways include:
• Extensive reliance upon data, from the initial step of selecting industries or occupations for pathway development, through the work of identifying gaps in education and training for the target industries, and finally evaluating how successful efforts to improve educational attainment and economic advancement in those industries have been.
• Use of “road maps,” jointly produced by educators, workforce development profes- sionals and employers, that show the connections between education and training programs and jobs at different levels within a given industry or occupational sector at different levels.
• Clear linkages between remedial, academic and occupational programs within educational institutions, and easy articulation of credits across institutions to enable students to progress seamlessly from one level to the next and earn credentials while improving their career prospects and working within the field.
• Curricula defined in terms of competencies required for jobs and further education at the next level, and, where possible, tied to industry skill standards, certifications or licensing requirements.
• Emphasis on “learning by doing” through class projects, laboratories, simulations and internships.
• Programs offered at times and places (including workplaces) convenient for working adults and structured in small modules or “chunks,” each leading to a recognized credential.
• The flexibility to enter and exit education as participants’ circumstances permit.
• “Wrap-around” support services, including career assessment and counseling, case management, child care, financial aid and job placement.
• “Bridge programs” for educationally disadvantaged youths and adults that teach basic skills like communication, math and problem- solving in the context of training for advancement to better jobs and post- secondary training.
• Alignment of both public and private funding sources, such as the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act (Perkins), Workforce Investment Act (WIA), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), state and federal financial aid and employer tuition reimbursement, and sharing of costs among partners to provide needed education and support services in a cost-effective way.
At each point along career pathways, the objective is not only to prepare youths and adults for the next levels of education and employment, but to motivate them to advance by exposing them to the opportunities available.
The guide is designed for local actors, such as professionals in community colleges and workforce, social service and economic devel- opment agencies, who are looking to render their institutions more responsive to the needs of the individuals, employers and communities they serve. It is also intended for state agencies seeking to invest scarce public resources in efforts that will pay off for state and local economic development.