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Between School and Work

How ‘career pathway programs’ can help young people navigate their way to opportunities and success.
August 31, 2021
Between School and Work
Students watch as Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) instructor Rick Johnson (C) demonstrates how to navigate a utility pole during the PG&E's PowerPathway Pole Climbing Capstone course at the PG&E pole climbing training facility on June 8, 2012 in Oakland, California. Students who are aspiring utility workers from Oakland's Cypress Mandela Training Center and Workforce Institute, a Division of San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, are participating in PG&E's PowerPathway program Pole Climbing Capstone course, a three week course that teaches skills to better prepare individuals to compete for jobs such as pre-apprentice lineworker within the utility industry. The free course is held at the new pole climbing training facility at PG&E's Oakport Service Center. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

COVID-19 sent a shock wave through an already changing U.S. job market, producing the “great American jobs reshuffle,” a transformation of how people work, how they want to work, the kinds of employment that are available, and workers’ career plans. Among the changes has been a rise in the use of skills-based hiring, an approach to hiring that identifies potential employees based on their skills rather than relying on the four-year college degree as the premier credential.

Given this move away from the four-year degree as the gateway to employment readiness, how should young people—often told college is the only way to a good job—be prepared for gainful employment and adult success?

A Youth Opportunity Agenda

Skills-based hiring evaluates a person’s current capabilities and competencies, matching them to jobs. It includes technical and digital skills as well as skills like communication, collaboration, and problem solving. Many major employers have begun using this approach, including the likes of Google, EY (formerly Ernst & Young), Penguin Random House, Apple, IBM, and Bank of America. Some firms turned to skills-based hiring before the pandemic, others began using it during the disruption of the last year and a half.

The skills-based approach to hiring levels the playing field for those who don’t have college degrees, expanding talent pools and making them more diverse and inclusive. It also deals pragmatically with two stubborn labor-market facts that won’t disappear any time soon: Nearly two thirds (65 percent) of the U.S. labor force doesn’t have a college degree, and there are many good middle-skills jobs for high school graduates without a college degree.

For at least a decade, K-12 schools and local civic partners have been testing an approach to job preparation called “career pathway programs” that suggests an alternative to the college-degree hiring bias. These programs are characterized by three features. First, there’s an aspirational goal for developing a young person’s knowledge, skills, and employability not tied solely to attaining a college degree. That aspirational goal is ensuring that every young person—regardless of background or current condition—has multiple pathways for acquiring the knowledge and networks needed for jobs and careers, preparing them to access opportunity and a flourishing life.

Second, there’s a distinct way to describe the two foundational elements for a young person’s pursuit of opportunity: knowledge and relationships, what students know and who they know. Pathway programs prepare young people to pursue opportunity by acquiring knowledge and networks. In short, knowledge + networks = opportunity.

Finally, there are criteria for success that can be duplicated in almost any community.

Models of Social Capital Partnership

While career pathway programs are still relatively new and experimental, there are now enough with sufficient track records that we can start to think about different models and how they might suit the needs of different communities and constituencies. Here are five examples of pathway programs integrating schools and students with employers and work. These programs create social capital for young people by initiating new relationships that expand their knowledge and networks. They combine habits of mind and association, with the aim of helping young people acquire the knowledge and relationships to pursue opportunity.

Public-private partnerships. Atlanta’s business community, Fulton County Schools, and Junior Achievement created 3-D Education (3-DE), a public-private partnership. This project-based learning approach includes a six-week case study beginning in eleventh grade matching students with coaches in industrial and professional settings. Examples of the workforce pathways offered students include business and technology, entrepreneurship, marketing and management, and financial services. Support for operational costs come from local philanthropy, with school related program costs financed by the district’s per-pupil allocations.

Citywide partnerships. In New Orleans, the education, business, and civic partnership YouthForce NOLA works with open-enrollment charter high schools, offering career exposure and work experiences, soft-skills training, coaching for students, and paid student internships for seniors. This includes ninety hours of a career pathway work placement in biology and health sciences, digital media and IT, and skilled crafts like architecture and water management. It also has a program educating parents about the career pathways program. Financial support is mostly from philanthropy, though local government pays for workforce youth intern stipends.

School district, charter school, and university partnerships. Wiseburn School District in Los Angeles County and its partner Da Vinci Charter School have over one hundred business and nonprofit partners offering students internships, mentorships, workshops, boot camps, and consultancies, with mental health and counseling services. The program is financed by district per pupil allotments and other state and local dollars, with minor support from foundations and individual donors. Students can pursue associate or bachelor’s degrees through UCLA Extension and El Camino College or College for America. Postsecondary Pell grants pay for college tuition.

Catholic schools and corporate partnerships. Cristo Rey, a network of 38 Catholic high schools in 23 states, integrates four years of academics with work experience through its corporate work study program. This separate nonprofit places students five days a month in an entry-level professional job at one of 3,400 corporate partners. Forty percent of students are not Catholic, 98 percent are minority. Students earn 60 percent of tuition through employment, with the balance paid from fundraising and a small family contribution. In some states, Cristo Rey accesses public dollars from K-12 school-choice programs.

Postsecondary expansion. Southern New Hampshire University purchased the Indianapolis-based Kenzie Academy, originally a venture-funded technology and apprenticeship program for young people (and adults like formerly incarcerated individuals and those with masters degrees seeking new jobs). It exists as a nonprofit operating division of SNHU. It offers credentialed online programs in software engineering and UX design with an apprenticeship in Kenzie Studio, the company’s consulting arm. Students participate in an income-sharing agreement that delays tuition payment until they have a job paying at least $40,000.

Finally, many communities use technology platforms to build virtual mentoring opportunities and networks between students and community partners. Examples include CommunityShare, Imblaze, and Nepris. These programs use online networks and resources to connect community members, industry professionals, parents, and organizations with educators who want to create real-world learning opportunities for their students.

A Framework for Civic Success

Five features guide the design of career pathway programs:

1. Academic and technical skills and credentials. Programs teach academic and technical skills aligned with labor market needs—that is, they link supply and demand. There’s a timeline for program completion. Participants receive a recognized credential tied to a good job.

2. Work and careers. Exposure to work and careers begins early in school through guest speakers and field trips. High school includes career experience with work placement and mentorships, integrated with classroom instruction. Exposure, exploration, and experience connect students with adults, especially important for students in high-poverty communities.

3. Advising system. Students are paired with advisors, who ensure that they make informed choices and who help avoid forced tracking into jobs based on race, ethnicity, gender, or class. The advisory system also helps address such barriers as financial assistance and helps ensure that students keep progressing through the program. This fosters self-agency, so they become knowledgeable enough to choose the correct pathway.

4. Authentic partnerships. Employers, industry groups and other institutions must collaborate for programs to succeed. Some groups work on program issues. Others provide support by convening stakeholders or navigating work placement and support services for participants (and families). Written agreements create a management and governance structure—a civic partnership—between partners.

5. Supporting policies. It is vitally important to have local and state policies (and where applicable, federal policies) to create a framework for program development. For example, a policy creating incentives for K-12, postsecondary institutions, labor, and workforce groups to integrate funding streams enables long-term financial support for the program.

Opportunity Pluralism

By helping young people prepare for skills-based hiring; helping them develop an occupational identity and vocational self, including a broader sense of who they are as adults; and providing faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers than traditional postsecondary education, these pathway programs represent a new sort of transition from education and employment, one more appealing in many ways than the conventional models. They advance opportunity pluralism, offering individuals multiple education, training and credentialing pathways to work and career—including for some a college degree. Instead of equalizing opportunity through a four-year degree pathway, the range of opportunities for individuals is broadened and deepened. This makes the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic.

Finally, they place students on a trajectory to economic and social well-being, informed citizenship, and civic responsibility, laying a foundation for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity. That’s good for the students who benefit from these programs and for society which can make better use of talents that might otherwise be overlooked.

Bruno V. Manno

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program.