What’s the best way to prepare young people to participate successfully in the twenty-first century workforce? This is a question many donors face with an increasing sense of urgency, both as the pace of technological change accelerates and as the effectiveness of standard modes of education declines.
Moreover, this question isn’t simply an economic one involving workforce participation. At bottom, questions of career development concern whether young people have the personal agency and other tools they need for human flourishing, including upward mobility and the related responsibilities of citizenship.
In this light, we see a hopeful development. A new "opportunity pluralism" is emerging in the United States, which offers young people and job-seekers new paths to successful careers and human flourishing. Donors who wish to increase the upward mobility of young people and current workers, and also support the institutions of civil society, would do well to support these career pathway education and training programs.
In this piece, I offer an overview of these programs as a primer for donors who might wish to support economic opportunity in our communities.
Pathway programs immerse participants in education, training, and work experience by connecting learners with local employers and labor market demands. They also provide participants with personal and occupational support services, including job placement.
Career pathway programs come in many different forms: apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education; career academies; boot camps for learning specific skills; and staffing, placement, and other support services for those seeking jobs.
What they offer, among other goods, is the crucially important opportunity to build social capital or strong relationships between participants and mentors from different backgrounds. These cross-class relationships—what economists call economic connectedness—help both groups develop new social networks and the benefits that come from them.
Career pathway programs are being created in “top-down” and “bottom-up” ways. The former includes statewide programs created by governors and legislators from both political parties that are implemented locally by many civic partners, like Delaware Pathways by Democrat Jack Markell and Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance by Republican Bill Haslam. Similar programs exist in politically diverse states like California, Colorado, Texas, and Indiana.
Meanwhile, we see examples of “bottom-up” local programs forming between K-12 schools, employers, and civic partners like 3DE Schools in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans, Washington D.C.’s CityWorks D.C.; and Cristo Rey, 38 Catholic high schools in 24 states.
Finally, organizations like Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, and Linked Learning Alliance form regional or local partnerships to provide advice and practical assistance to those creating pathways programs.
Pathways programs create opportunity pluralism, an approach that offers individuals a diversity of paths to work, career, and opportunity. In this respect, they differ sharply from the old high school vocational education programs, which tracked students into occupations based on family background and other characteristics.
Career pathway programs have five common features:
These new programs also emphasize two important elements that lay the foundation for the lifelong pursuit of opportunity: knowledge and relationships. As the old adage goes, it’s not only what you know but also who you know. Properly understood, opportunity lies in a combination of both knowledge that pays and relationships that are priceless.
DO THESE PROGRAMS WORK?
On a community level, recent studies by Harvard economist and Opportunity Insights Director Raj Chetty and colleagues show that relationships across class lines play a key role in boosting upward mobility and expanding opportunity. These relationships might be formed in school or the workplace, but the key point is that it’s not the relationships themselves that create opportunity. Rather, it’s their downstream, multiplier effects that result from the mentorships and new information that shape participants’ aspirations and behavior.
Additional empirical validation comes from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families’ Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse. Examining over 8,000 research studies that identified 221 pathway interventions, it found that 38% of the interventions “improved outcomes in at least one domain of interest.” Finally, studying the link between teenage activities, experiences, and adult career outcomes in eight countries, the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that “evidence that secondary school students who explore, experience, and think about their futures in work frequently encounter lower levels of unemployment, receive higher wages, and are happier in their careers as adults.” In other words, enhancing education with work experience pays dividends in the long run.
These programs provide long-term benefits to participants, communities, and society at large that go beyond the immediate success of having someone get a good job.
They help participants develop an occupational identity and vocational self that assist them in achieving other life goals. They teach participants what it means to be a worker with abilities and values, an important element of general adult success. They also cultivate the connections and bonds that build on the dynamism and innovation nurtured by local initiatives and institutions of civil society. Last but by no means least, they create faster and cheaper ways to prepare individuals for jobs.
Donors would do well to provide support for these programs. They promise to advance individuals, local civil society, and the nation.