National Initiatives  /  Career Pathways Systems

Career Pathways Systems


Use of ARP Funds for Career Pathways 2022 (PDF, 401 KB)


Robin Utz
(202) 245-7767

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:

  • (A) aligns with the skill needs of industries in the economy of the State or regional economy involved;
  • (B) prepares an individual to be successful in any of a full range of secondary or postsecondary education options, including registered apprenticeships;
  • (C) includes counseling to support an individual in achieving the individual’s education and career goals;
  • (D) includes, as appropriate, education offered concurrently with and in the same context as workforce preparation activities and training for a specific occupation or occupational cluster;
  • (E) organizes education, training, and other services to meet the particular needs of an individual in a manner that accelerates the educational and career advancement of the individual to the extent practicable;
  • (F) enables an individual to attain a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, and at least one recognized postsecondary credential; and
  • (G) helps an individual enter or advance within a specific occupation or occupational cluster.” [Section 3(7) of WIOA]

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 2022 Dear Colleague Letter Regarding Use of American Rescue Plan Funds for Career Pathway (PDF, 401 KB)

Download the 2016 Career Pathways Joint Letter (PDF, 394 KB)

Integrated Career Pathways Model Thumbnail
The Integrated Career Pathways Model shows how a comprehensive Career Pathways System promotes the development of structured pathways into and through postsecondary credential programs.
2016 Career Pathways Joint Letter
2016 Career Pathways Joint Letter
Download Now
Federal Agency Pathways Resources and Tools
Federal Agency Pathways Resources and Tools
Download Now

OCTAE Contact

Robin Utz

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.

Career pathways initiatives define desired system and program outcomes; establish how data will be collected, stored, tracked and shared; and analyze data and assess progress made toward achieving outcomes.

Integrated Career Pathways Model Thumbnail
Programs of Study Framework

Click to expand

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

  • provide for state and/or local funding and other resources, such as professional development and dedicated staff time, for career and technical education Program of Study development;
  • establish formal procedures for the design, implementation, and continuous improvement of career and technical education programs of study;
  • ensure opportunities for any learner to participate in a career and technical education program of study;
  • require secondary students to develop an individual graduation or career plan; and
  • provide resources for long-term sustainability of career and technical education programs of study.

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

  • create written memoranda of understanding that elaborate the roles and responsibilities of partnership members;
  • conduct ongoing analyses of economic and workforce trends to identify statewide (or regional) career and technical education programs of study to be created, expanded, or discontinued;
  • link into existing initiatives that promote workforce and economic development, such as sector strategies and other activities supported by the Workforce Investment Act; and
  • identify, validate, and keep current the technical and workforce readiness skills that should be taught within a career and technical education program of study.

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

  • support the alignment of curriculum from grade to grade (9–12) and from programs of secondary to postsecondary education (vertical curriculum alignment);
  • support the development of integrated academic and career and technical curriculum and instruction (horizontal curriculum alignment);
  • ensure that teachers and faculty have the content knowledge to align and integrate curriculum and instruction; and
  • foster innovative teaching and learning strategies.

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

  • include the "10 Essential Elements of a State Longitudinal Data System" identified by the Data Quality Campaign;
  • provide for administrative record matching of student education and employment data (e.g., Unemployment Insurance (UI) wage records);
  • yield valid and reliable data on key student outcomes (indicators) referenced in Perkins and other relevant federal and state legislation; and
  • provide timely data to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of career and technical education programs of study.

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

  • be developed and continually validated in collaboration with secondary, postsecondary, and industry partners;
  • incorporate essential knowledge and skills (e.g., academic, communication, and problem-solving skills), which students must master regardless of their chosen career area or career and technical education programs of study;
  • provide the same rigorous knowledge and skills in English and mathematics that employers and colleges expect of high school graduates;
  • incorporate industry-recognized technical standards that are valued in the workplace; and
  • to the extent practicable, be internationally benchmarked, so that all students are prepared to succeed in a global economy.

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

  • map out the recommended academic and career and technical courses in each career and technical education program of study;
  • begin with introductory courses at the secondary level that teach broad foundational knowledge and skills that are common across all career and technical education programs of study;
  • progress to more occupationally-specific courses at the postsecondary level that provide knowledge and skills required for entry into and advancement in a chosen career and technical education programs of study; and
  • offer opportunities for students to earn postsecondary credit for coursework taken during high school.

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

  • provide a systematic, seamless process for students to earn college credit for postsecondary courses taken in high school, transfer high school credit to any two- or four-year institution in the state that offers career and technical education programs of study, and transfer credit earned at a two-year college to any other two- or four-year institution in the state that offers career and technical education programs of study;
  • transcript the college credit at the time the secondary student earns the credit, so that the students can transfer seamlessly into the postsecondary portion of a career and technical education program of study without the need for additional paperwork or petitioning for credit; and
  • describe the expectations and requirements for, at a minimum, teacher and faculty qualifications, course prerequisites, postsecondary entry requirements, location of courses, tuition reimbursement, and credit transfer process.

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

  • are based on state and/or local guidance and counseling standards, such as the National Career Development Guidelines;
  • ensure that guidance, counseling, and advisement professionals have access to up-to-date information about career and technical education programs of study offerings to aid students in their decision making;
  • offer information and tools to help students learn about postsecondary education and career options, including prerequisites for particular career and technical education programs of study;
  • offer resources for students to identify their career interests and aptitudes and to select appropriate career and technical education programs of study;
  • provide information and resources for parents to help their children prepare for college and careers, including workshops on college and financial aid applications; and
  • offer web-based resources and tools for obtaining student financial assistance.

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

  • be jointly led by interdisciplinary teaching teams of academic and career and technical teachers or faculty;
  • employ contextualized work-based, project-based, and problem-based learning approaches;
  • incorporate team-building, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills, (e.g., activities organized by the career and technical student organization (CTSO).

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

  • measure student attainment of technical skill proficiencies at multiple points during a career and technical education Program of Study;
  • employ industry-approved technical skill assessments based on industry standards, where available and appropriate;
  • employ state-developed and/or approved assessments, where industry approved assessments do not exist; and
  • incorporate performance-based assessment items, to the greatest extent possible, where students must demonstrate the application of their knowledge and skills.

* See the relationship between programs of study requirements and the framework supporting components.

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

(1) Build Cross-Agency Partnerships and Clarify Roles

(2) Partnerships

  • Cross-agency partnerships include education, business, workforce, economic development, and community stakeholders
  • Common vision and goals
  • Clearly delineated and agreed-upon roles/responsibilities for all partners

(2) Identify Industry Sectors and Engage Employers

(2) Partnerships

(10) Technical Skills Assessment

  • Both career pathways and career and technical education programs of study frameworks stress the analysis and validation of economic and workforce trends, and adaptation of pathways accordingly

(3) Design Education and Training Programs

(5) College and Career Readiness Standards

(6) Course Sequences

(7) Credit Transfer Agreements

(8) Guidance Counseling and Academic Advising

(9) Teaching and Learning Strategies

(10) Technical Skills Assessment

(3) Professional Development

  • Clear, non-duplicative sequences of course
  • Opportunities to earn college credit leading to industry-recognized, postsecondary credentials
  • Credit transfer / articulation agreements
  • Counseling, including career planning and academic advisement
  • Support services, especially in career pathways
  • Contextualization and modularization of curricula, and mapping of pathways
  • Integrated instruction of academic and technical content
  • Instructional strategies that instill work readiness skills

(4) Identify Funding Needs and Sources

(1) Legislation and Policies

(3) Professional Development

  • Emphasis on the role of federal, state, and local policies in promoting and sustaining career pathways and programs of study and in helping students access career pathways and programs of study services

(5) Align Policies and Programs

(1) Legislation and Policies

  • Braided or integrated funding from multiple funding sources to provide sufficient resources and sustain programs
  • Importance of funding to support professional development and other system development activities

(6) Measure System Change and Performance

(4) Accountability and Evaluation Systems

(10) Technical Skills Assessment

  • Importance of defining outcomes / measuring progress
  • Processes for collecting, storing, analyzing, and sharing data are encouraged in both career pathways and programs of study frameworks

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.

Integrated Career Pathways Model This model was developed as part of the Advancing Career and Technical Education in State and Local Career Pathways Systems project sponsored by OCTAE.

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.