Career Pathways Take the Next Step toward Quality and Scale

February 14, 2013

By Vickie Choitz, Marcie W.M. Foster, and Patrick Reimherr

Over the last decade, career pathways have evolved as an innovative approach to assist individuals in gaining marketable credentials and good jobs and to help employers access a skilled workforce. Postsecondary credentials (including both marketable noncredit, industry-based credentials such as Certified Manufacturing Technologist or Wind Turbine Technician and more traditional two- and four-year degrees) can be an avenue out of poverty and a lifetime of low-wage work. However, the nation’s education and workforce development systems have not been designed to provide all workers with a seamless path to earning these credentials.

Despite all good intentions, the current state of our education and workforce systems too often results in shortcomings that can block the road to educational and economic success for low-income workers. For instance, the education and training pathway is disjointed: adult education and college developmental education are often disconnected from workforce education services. These disconnects can make it more difficult for students to progress from one level of education to the next or to transfer from one educational system to another.  Also, in many cases, today’s education and workforce development systems lack structures to help students navigate the disconnects, obtain critical support services, and gain the “college knowledge” necessary for success in postsecondary education. Finally, students facing economic pressure to work and support their families may not see the relevance of traditionally delivered education and discontinue before making headway toward earning credentials and securing better jobs.

A career pathway approach reorients existing education and workforce services from a myriad of disconnected programs to a coordinated structure that focuses on the individuals in need of education and training and corresponding career paths.  This approach also provides clear transitions, strong supports, and other elements critical to the success of participants. It is not simply a new model; it is a new way of doing business – for education and training institutions, employers, students, community organizations, agency staff, and policymakers. Adopting a career pathway approach means redesigning the delivery of education, training, and employment services to be much more integrated, aligned, and participant-centered.

Last summer, CLASP launched the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways, a two-year, state-driven, CLASP-led effort to identify (1) criteria for high-quality career pathway systems and (2) a set of shared performance metrics for measuring and managing their success. The 10 states in the Alliance are leading the nation in experience with and scale of career pathway efforts. These states are Arkansas, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. The Alliance recognizes that there are many different types of career pathways for different types of students and workers, and a comprehensive career pathway system provides an inclusive umbrella for all of them. The Alliance’s niche in this broad vision is to develop a framework for career pathways focusing on educationally underprepared youth and adults.

In the first phase of the Alliance, CLASP released two products this week:

The first paper lays the foundation for the Alliance’s framework of quality criteria and shared performance metrics.  This paper outlines a conceptual model of both career pathway state and local/regional systems and career pathway programs; defines important terms; provides examples; and, describes the Alliance’s general approach to creating the framework for quality criteria and performance metrics.

The second paper, which presents a framework for measurement, examines three important aspects to consider in developing career pathway metrics: 1) the level of the measurement (i.e., at what system level are metrics being used?); 2) the use of metrics (e.g., for continuous improvement, performance measurement, etc.); and 3) the scope of each measurement (i.e., what is being measured and for which participants?). This paper provides useful background for the shared performance metrics part of the Alliance framework.

These working papers seek to balance the reality of the current career pathways field with aspirations to move the field to the next level of development and are “works in progress.” CLASP and the Alliance states anticipate that we will learn more about the nuances of career pathways and systems throughout the course of this initiative, our understanding will evolve, and our conceptualization and definitions will be refined. We encourage anyone involved in career pathways from local to state to the federal levels to register for project updates and stay tuned.

To learn more about the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways, visit

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