Posted by Jessica R. Kendall, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff
The demand for a highly skilled workforce continues to rise. While the unemployment rate today is low, many skilled positions remain open as American workers’ educational levels or skills don’t match business’s needs. Simply put, increasing the capacities of low-skilled workers is necessary.
Earlier welfare-to-work evaluations, however, showed educational or training programs, by themselves, had minimal positive effects on participants’ employment outcomes or welfare receipt.
But, since the Great Recession, next-generation strategies have begun to take more comprehensive approaches to help individuals acquire in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials. They do so, in part, by increasing coordination across education, training, human service, and business efforts.
A joint letter released by the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor, in 2012 (and later with additional agencies in 2016), promoted these career pathways approaches as participant-centered and efficient. They defined career pathways as "a series of connected education and training strategies and support services that enable individuals to secure industry relevant certifications and obtain employment within an occupational area and to advance to higher levels of future education and employment in that area."
Since then and based on a growing body of literature, federal agencies have developed tools and resources for the field to design and implement career pathway strategies. The Department of Labor’s 2016 toolkit suggests six key elements to a career pathways approach: (1) building cross-agency partnerships and clarifying roles; (2) identifying industry sectors and engaging employers; (3) designing education and training programs; (4) identifying funding needs and sources; (5) aligning policies and programs; and (6) measuring systems change and performance.
In addition to resources, early analyses from several evaluations—many of which are federally funded—increase the body of evidence assessing the effectiveness of career pathway strategies, including:
Accelerating Opportunity (AO): This quasi-experimental study assessed the education and employment outcomes for low-skilled adults participating in integrated career pathway programs at community or technical colleges across four states. The impact analysis showed that AO students earned more credentials with fewer credits, suggesting an accelerated learning path. AO also showed strong positive earning impacts for some subgroups of students (e.g., those recruited from career and technical education (CTE) programs or adult education), but not significant gains for all students during the several quarter follow-up period.
Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program (TAACCCT): The U.S. Department of Labor’s four rounds of TAACCCT grants aim to increase the ability of community colleges to offer career-focused education and training that meets employer demands. Data and results to date show that over 60 percent of program participants have either completed the program or were retained as of 2015. In comparison, a 2016 study found that about 66 percent of students at two-year institutions failed to earn any credential within six years. Of employed participants, 32 percent experienced a wage increase at some point after starting the program. Almost 60 percent of completers who were employed before or during the first three months after exit kept their jobs at least through the following two quarters.
The Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE): The PACE project is a rigorous evaluation of nine career pathway strategies. Using a random assignment methodology, the evaluation is assessing programs in community colleges, community-based organizations, and workforce agencies. An early report from the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County site found that its Health Careers for All program increased the number of participants enrolled in healthcare-related training in an 18-month follow-up period. There was no impact, however, on credential receipt or total hours of training. Later reports will assess the program’s impacts on job placement and earnings. Key features of the program include case management services, tuition-free access to training, employment services, and financial assistance. Similarly, an early report from the Pima Community College site in Tucson, Arizona found increased hours in healthcare occupational training and credentials received among program participants. The program had limited effects on employment 18-months after random assignment. Despite this, evaluators found positive impacts on self-assessed progress towards career goals, increased confidence in career knowledge, and access to career supports. Key features of Pima’s program included five healthcare career paths with stackable credentials, career counseling, scholarships, compressed basic skills programming, and job search assistance.
As a next-generation, education and employment strategy, career pathways approaches show promise. Ongoing studies will provide a more in-depth understanding of their short and long-term impacts on helping low-income individuals not only increase their skills but find careers that last and improve family self-sufficiency.
Learn more about career pathways from the SSRC:
The SSRC Library contains numerous reports and stakeholder resources about career pathways, including:
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