Voices From the Field of Career Pathways: Pathways to Prosperity

This blog series shares lessons from national organizations working to build career pathways with support from state leadership. Each post will highlight one provider and share a cornerstone element from their strategy for others to consider in their own development of career pathways.

Are high schools truly preparing students for a successful life? Many high schools define success by students' academic accomplishments and college enrollment. But what about their career readiness?  Instead, success might be better defined as providing students with a high school curriculum that combines academic coursework with skills necessary for current and projected workforce demands. This not only supports college-bound students but also helps students who do not enroll in a four-year college find a path to success.

The 2011 Harvard Graduate School of Education report, Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century, outlines a national strategy through targeted regional efforts to develop more comprehensive network of pathways to serve the youth in high school and beyond. According to the report, the skills and opportunity gaps are widening for young people, the labor market is becoming more demanding and requires higher levels of education, and “a focus on college readiness alone does not equip young people with all of the skills and abilities they will need in the workplace, or to successfully complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood” (p. 4).

Spurred by the release of this report, Pathways to Prosperity supports a network of communities with the creation of programs combining coursework and curriculum with workforce experiences by matching regional and state labor-market needs with high school and postsecondary coursework. The programs also incorporate employer input in developing programs that prepare students for high-demand careers.

The network focuses on career pathways for students in Grades 9–14 (associate degrees or other postsecondary credentials) in industries that provide a family-sustaining wage. Unique to this strategy is the focus on region-specific needs. “We’re now working in 12 states, but more importantly, we’re in 45 to 50 regions because our view was that this work really plays out at the regional labor market level,” said Bob Schwartz, Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the report’s authors.

Lessons Learned

Strong relationships between schools and industry and taking a long-term view toward building these relationships often make the difference for successful programs.

How can other states develop their own career pipeline programs that focus on region-specific labor-market needs?

Bring employers in. In regions where industries such as health care, information technology, or advanced manufacturing are emerging, Pathways to Prosperity engages with employers in these sectors to develop academic programs and curricula or participate in mentoring or training initiatives for high school students. The engagement of industry leaders is essential because they see value in preparing high school and community college students for careers in their industries.

Employers “often see value in partnering with a two-year institution, even if the students don’t feed directly into their company,” said Sheila Jackson, program manager at Jobs for the Future. They don’t see their investment necessarily as a talent pipeline for new employees, but they understand that the IT field, for example, is changing at such a rapid pace and there is a need for more employees at all levels of the industry,” said Jackson.

Get educators to think regionally. Start with regional labor market. “Where are the high-growth, high-demand jobs, and where are the employers who have concern about their future talent pipeline?” said Schwartz. Connecting emerging workforce demands involves mapping current career pathways and prioritizing state or regional labor-market gaps.

Engage regional stakeholders and build consortia. Build effective regional partnerships between high schools, community colleges, and industry leaders. “Neither high schools, community colleges, nor employers can do this work alone,” said Schwartz. The circumstances, priorities, and vernacular of each partner can be difficult to navigate, and so collaboration between them is critical. Each stakeholder brings something unique to the table. For example, business leaders have certain insights into the necessary knowledge, skills, dispositions, and competencies required to do the jobs projected to be in demand or specific to the region’s industries. With this information, state, district, and school leaders can develop industry-specific course sequencing as well as work-based opportunities and postsecondary options that are appropriate for students preparing for that industry.

George Knowles is the Digital Communication Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum. 

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