Illinois’ Career Pathways Definition is a Model for States

By Judy Mortrude

Career pathways are the best way to reduce barriers to economic success. Building systems to support them takes a whole community. You need consistent policies and enough resources to bring stakeholders to the table. Together, practitioners from adult and postsecondary education, human services, workforce development, housing, and other systems can invest, align, evaluate, and evolve their shared work. But before moving forward, they have to agree on what the work is. 

In Illinois, the Chicago Jobs CouncilWomen Employed, and Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition have partnered to create the Pathways to Careers Network. These trusted advocates worked with state agencies and policymakers from the Illinois Community College Board, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and governor’s office to develop a single definition of career pathways and provide guidance to practitioners.

Illinois leaders based their career pathway definition on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and Higher Education Act. From there, they added an expanded introduction to reflect the partnerships and structure of Illinois career pathways.

Additionally, Illinois built state guidance to clarify how a successful pathway should operate and provided additional detail around each of the required A-G elements. For example, Illinois guidance encourages co-enrollment as a strategy to meet component F: “enables an individual to attain a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, and at least 1 recognized postsecondary credential.” Finally, Illinois emphasized its commitment to equity as well as continuous improvement through evaluating participant outcomes.

Illinois’ career pathway definition is now in effect. State leaders are using it to guide grant making and cross-agency projects. That includes state apprenticeship work as well as funding opportunities for talent pipeline management, statewide innovation, career pathways for youth, and evaluating outcomes.

Many states’ WIOA plans hinge on building career pathways. A lot of that work requires local relationship building between employers and education partners. However, state agencies can provide the policy environment that moves the conversation from relational to operational.

Career pathways are embedded across workforce development, adult and postsecondary education, and public benefit programs. In order for that work to align, each program must be able to identify career pathway services as well as enrolled participants. The state workforce board, along with WIOA core and other required partners, plays an important role in establishing the policy environment that allows career pathway programs to be identified, scaled, evaluated, and continuously improved.

Despite progress in states like Illinois, career pathway systems remain challenging to build. This summer, CLASP will convene with state leaders to discuss guided pathway redesign, Ability to Benefit (ATB), new and needed research, and equity issues. Additionally, CLASP will release four papers on innovation and opportunity this fall.

When it comes to workforce development, career pathways are the best way to build individual prosperity and regional economic competitiveness. But to realize their full potential, we have to move beyond rhetoric. Now is the time to define strategies, implement policies, and evaluate success.