Fundamentally, a Career Pathways System is about the coordination of people and resources. Within education, this includes aligning our country's K–12 and postsecondary education systems and, in particular, the career and technical education services provided within and across program providers. This section provides information about career pathways generally and strategies to support career and technical education students in acquiring the academic, employability, and technical skills that employers demand.
In April 2012, the U.S. Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services formed a Federal partnership and issued a letter of joint commitment to promote the use of career pathways to assist youth and adults with acquiring marketable skills and industry-recognized credentials through better alignment of education, training and employment, and human and social services among public agencies and with employers. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation joined the partnership to advance career pathways in response to the anticipated hiring needs in the transportation sector. Today, our Federal partnership has grown to include the agencies that are part of the Administration’s Skills Working Group (Working Group). This group, launched in November 2014, maintains momentum for the Administration’s Job-Driven Training Initiative, which seeks to assure that youth and adults completing our education and training programs have the skills businesses need. The Working Group comprises the White House National Economic Council, the Office of Management and Budget, and thirteen Federal agencies, including: the U. S. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, the Social Security Administration, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs (the Departments). The Working Group coordinates activities across these various agencies, including efforts to ensure that career pathways are available to all individuals, especially our nation’s low-skilled youth and adults, many of whom are already in the workplace. In an effort to meet the demand for a skilled workforce, the Departments of the expanded Federal partnership have consistently articulated the need for increasing the skills of American workers, including adults and youth with disabilities, and invested in education and training as an economic and business imperative.
Career pathways can offer an efficient and customer-centered approach to training and education by connecting the necessary adult basic education, occupational training, postsecondary education, career and academic advising, and supportive services for students to prepare for, obtain, and progress in a career.
The newly-enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 includes an updated definition and overarching framework for the implementation of career pathways at Federal, State, local, and tribal levels. WIOA defines a career pathway as “a combination of rigorous and high-quality education, training, and other services that:
The Departments encourage State, local, and tribal policymakers to use these elements to promote alignment among their public workforce, education, and social and human services systems. At the same time, the Departments continue to take steps to incorporate career pathways approaches into a wide range of program investments, evaluation and research activities, and technical assistance efforts.
Download the 2016 Career Pathways Joint Letter (PDF, 394 KB)
The past decade has seen a dramatic increase at the state, regional, and institutional levels in the development of career pathways, which are designed to bring greater efficiency and transparency to the routes from adult education programs, non-credit training, or other starting points to credentials recognized by industry and postsecondary educational institutions. Built around integrated academic and technical education pathways, career pathways enable individuals to progress through a modular system of postsecondary credentials that build upon each other, leading to further credentials and improved employment prospects. The following are recognized as the Six Key Elements of Career Pathways:
Partnerships are at the heart of career pathways and are essential to making them successful. Key cross-agency partners at the local and state levels must be engaged, agree to a shared vision, and gain support from political leaders. Along with employers, State and local partners include, but are not limited to, workforce investment boards, community colleges, adult basic education providers, human services, economic development and community-based organizations, and workforce intermediaries. Commitment and participation from the governor’s office and local elected officials is also essential. Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and formalized.
Sector-based training strategies that include employers in the design of curricula have demonstrated better employment and earnings outcomes for participants than more traditional approaches. Career Pathways Systems are designed using real-time labor market information and active employer involvement to ensure that training and education programs meet the skill and competency needs of local employers.
Career pathways provide a clear sequence of education courses and credentials that meet the skill needs of high-demand industries. Key program design features include contextualized curricula, integrated basic education and occupational training, career counseling, support services, assessments, and credit transfer agreements that ease entry and exit and promote credential attainment.
Because career pathways approaches blend and align services from different government agencies to support an individual’s successful completion, innovative funding strategies that braid funds from a variety of public and private sources are essential.
Career pathways programs require significant alignment among workforce, education, and human services to ensure that an individual can move seamlessly from school to work and earn in-demand credentials. Since every state and local area has its own particular policy infrastructure, there is no single approach to creating the public policy necessary for career pathways approaches. States, localities, and tribal entities will need to examine whether administrative or legislative policy changes are necessary to help individuals participate in programs, enable blended funding, or support the professional development of staff necessary to support career pathway approaches.
As Career Pathways Systems for adults have been evolving and maturing, a parallel effort has taken shape in career and technical education. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins IV) requires eligible providers to offer at least one career and technical education program of study—a comprehensive, structured approach for delivering academic and career and technical education to prepare students for postsecondary education and career success.
Career and technical education practitioners view the following 10 supporting components* as essential for creating and implementing high quality, comprehensive career and technical education programs of study.
Strong career and technical education programs of study result from coordination across state, local, and stakeholder agencies. Development of career and technical education programs of study includes analysis of current labor market information to determine which career and technical education program of study will truly result in high demand jobs, input from stakeholders that is genuine and sustained, and funds dedicated to both initial development of career and technical education programs of study, as well as sustenance through curriculum development and business and education input. Legislation and policies at the state and local level should mandate, support, and encourage such practices. Federal, state, and local legislation or administrative policies promote career and technical education programs of study development and implementation.
Effective legislation and policies should
Ongoing relationships among education, business, and other community stakeholders are central to career and technical education programs of study design, implementation, and maintenance.
Collaborative partnerships should
Sustained, intensive, and focused opportunities for administrators, teachers, and faculty foster career and technical education programs of study design, implementation, and maintenance.
Effective professional development should
Systems and strategies to gather quantitative and qualitative data on both career and technical education programs of study components and student outcomes are crucial for ongoing efforts to develop and implement career and technical education programs of study.
Well-designed accountability and evaluation systems should
Content standards that define what students are expected to know and be able to do in order to enter and advance in college and/or their careers comprise the foundation of a career and technical education programs of study.
Rigorous college and career readiness standards should
Non-duplicative sequences of secondary and postsecondary courses within a career and technical education program of study ensure that students transition to postsecondary education without duplicating classes or requiring remedial coursework.
Well-developed course sequences should
Credit transfer agreements provide opportunities for secondary students to be awarded transcripted postsecondary credit at the time the credit is earned and are supported by formal agreements between secondary and postsecondary education systems.
Well-developed credit transfer agreements
Guidance counseling and academic advisement help students to make informed decisions about which career and technical education programs of study to pursue.
Comprehensive guidance counseling and academic advisement systems
Innovative and creative instructional approaches enable teachers to integrate academic and technical instruction, and enable students to apply academic and technical learning in their career and technical education programs of study coursework.
Effective teaching and learning strategies should
National, state, and/or local assessments provide ongoing information on the extent to which students are attaining the necessary knowledge and skills for entry into and advancement in postsecondary education and careers in their chosen career and technical education programs of study.
Well-developed technical skills assessments
The crosswalk below highlights the alignment between the definitional frameworks developed for Career Pathways Systems and career and technical education programs of study and provides links to integration strategies— most taken from state efforts around the country— that are proving effective in the design, delivery, and diffusion of a better aligned system engaging both career pathways and career and technical education programs of study.
|Six Key Elements
of Career Pathways
|Career and technical education programs of study
10 Essential Components
|Common Features||Integration Strategies|
Successful efforts to integrate career and technical education programs of study with Career Pathways Systems requires a commitment from multiple partners to working together toward greater transparency, alignment, and systemic change. The Integrated Career Pathways Model below shows how a comprehensive Career Pathways System can serve both high school age youth, as well as adults, and promote collaboration, alignment, and cross-system development of structured pathways into and through postsecondary credential programs.This model was developed as part of the Advancing Career and Technical Education in State and Local Career Pathways Systems project sponsored by OCTAE.
The U.S. Department of Education, in cooperation with other federal agencies, has sponsored several projects to support states and secondary and postsecondary educators in designing and strengthening the quality of their career and technical education programs of study and Career Pathways Systems. Some of these efforts include:
Explore resources to find information on program development, implementation, and scale-up efforts. Some of these resources are Government-created, while others are taken from a variety of federally-funded grants and contracts.
Evolution and Potential of Career Pathways (Government-Funded)
A Guide for the Development of Aligned Career Pathways Systems (Government-Funded)
A Tool for Sustaining Career Pathways Effort (Government-Funded)
Building Partnerships to Overcome Barriers: Developing Skills to Thrive in a Changing Economy in Minnesota
Creating Career Pathways in Colorado: A Step-by-Step Guide (Government-Funded)
Mapping Pathways Connections: Community College Career Pathways Roadmaps in Oregon
Mobilizing Employer Support: The Kansas Employer Engagement Initiative
Colorado Sector Partnership Toolkit
The Kansas Tuition Assistance and Incentive Program