Two weeks ago CareerWise, in partnership with The Attainment Network, hosted Colorado’s first Career Pathways Conference. The conference sold out, with almost 400 attendees representing high schools, school districts, colleges, training providers, workforce and industry. Everywhere I went I could feel the passion and bubbling conversation that just couldn’t be contained. The rooms were packed and relentlessly loud, the energy palpable. It was a delightful jolt from my peaceful and quiet home office.
So what was everyone so excited about? The answer is Career Pathways. But exactly does this mean? It’s a question I heard a lot at the conference, usually whispered in my ear. It’s a concept people vaguely relate to, but as I learned from so many of my colleagues at the conference, can be hard to fully understand. So let’s unpack exactly what we mean by this term, Career Pathways.
For decades US students have been sold one path to success. A singular narrative. College or bust. Students learn early on about the path they are “supposed” to follow. First high school, then college, then career. A magic formula, as easy as 1-2-3. But who is this path really working for? In the US, if you follow 100 ninth graders for four years, 85 will reach high school graduation and 54 of them will enroll in college the following fall. The other 46 of the 100 don’t. Of the 54 that enroll in college, only 38 are still enrolled sophomore year. And of those 38, only 27 will get a degree within 150% of the time it is supposed to take, so three years for an associates or six years for a bachelors. Of those 27, only 20 are earning the bachelor’s degree.* This means the magic formula is only working for about a quarter of our students.
So what do we do for the other 73% of our students? How do we ensure this remaining majority can launch a successful career anchored in a living wage, with opportunity to grow , advance and increase earnings over time? How can we ensure our state has the high-skilled talent our businesses need to thrive? CareerWise, and those who joined us on Auraria campus on September 15 and 16, believe the answer is Pathways.
The vision is that instead of a linear path from high school -to- college degree -to- career, students have lots of options to take a zig-zaggy rather than straight path. The zigs include things like apprenticeship, industry certifications, non-formal training programs; the zags may be enrolling in college later, rather than right after high school graduation. But these zig and zags can’t be left up to chance. It’s like a packed sledding hill on a winter day. The fastest path down the hill is not fresh snow, it’s following the treads that have already been forged by the sledders before you.
The work of building career pathways is mapping out how, within a certain field or cluster of technical skills, a student can move from one shorter-term post-secondary learning opportunity to the next, with each experience providing employable skills that count toward their next job and toward their next training or education program. The goal is that students zig-zag forward, never having to start over or repeat their learning.
What might it look like?
Imagine Samara. Samara is a CareerWise IT apprentice in high school. After she graduates she spends the next year working under mentors, continuing to grow. Through the apprenticeship she gets her A+ certification. After she completes the apprenticeship, she works for another year earning great wages, then decides to enroll in a cyber security certificate program in the evening. She gets credits toward the program for her A+ certification and apprenticeship certification, so it takes her less time to complete. Her employer helps pay for the tuition. One-year later she’s completed the cyber certificate and gets a promotion at work. Two years after that she is interested in a management role, so she enrolls in a bachelor’s degree program. Her certificates count toward her cyber degree, reducing her tuition and the time it will take to earn her degree. Samara is a lifelong learner. She can always take what she has learned before, and stack additional learning and training on top.
A system that allows for this, that gives students a multitude of entry points, exit points, and zig-zaggy routes in between would be transformative for Colorado. And now we have close to 400 Coloradans with new ideas, inspiration and connections to start building. We hope you’ll join us. Whether you are hosting an apprenticeship or attending our conference, you can help build this system of zig-zaggy paths, because with the Mountainous terrain of Colorado, we know straight lines rarely get you to your destination.
*Source: NCHEMS Information Center, higheredinfo.org, 2021