Career pathways and sector-focused employment programs

Career pathways and sector-focused employment programs offer occupation-specific training in high-growth industries or specific sectors for low-skilled individuals, incumbent workers (King 2016, Holzer 2014, Urban-Martinson 2010), out of school youth (MDRC-Hossain 2015), and hard-to-employ adults (Mathematica-Gash 2010). Such programs combine academic and technical education with supportive services; many also incorporate work experience (MDRC-Kazis 2016) and bridge programs (Upjohn-King 2015). Career pathways programs provide a series of stackable credentials toward higher-skilled positions in industries (MDRC-Kazis 2016) such as health care, advanced manufacturing, or information technology (King 2016). For example, a health care career ladder program can train hospital food service workers to become Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), and CNAs to become Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs) or Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) (Mathematica-Gash 2010). Career pathways are often components of sector-focused initiatives aimed at meeting regional workforce needs, and can also be implemented independently (King 2016, Upjohn-King 2015).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased employment

  • Increased earnings

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased academic achievement

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that career pathways and sector-focused employment programs increase employment and earnings (, Mathematica-Martinson 2016, MDRC-Hendra 2016, Upjohn-King 2015, Maguire 2009). However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Participation in career pathways and sectoral employment programs can increase employment and earnings more than traditional workforce development programs for low income, disadvantaged adult workers (, Mathematica-Martinson 2016, Mathematica-Gash 2010, Maguire 2009), and disconnected youth (MDRC-Hossain 2015). In some cases, program effects appear to fade over time (Mathematica-Martinson 2016); in others, effects persist up to 7.5 years after enrollment (Upjohn-King 2015). Gains in earnings appear to be higher for participants in programs with longer durations (), and participants in the health care industry than participants in manufacturing or transportation sector-focused programs. Gains may be lower for participants who are at the greatest disadvantage (). Successful programs generally serve low income workers with strong basic skills, rather than hard-to-employ adults ().

Participation in career pathway and sector-focused employment programs can increase educational attainment (CCRC-Zeidenberg 2010) and vocational credential receipt for workers with low incomes (Mathematica-Martinson 2016) or other barriers to employment, such as criminal convictions (MDRC-Hendra 2016).

Difficulty developing necessary partnerships, lack of basic skills among some participants, and a dynamic labor market that may eliminate occupations can be challenges to establishing programs (Brookings-Holzer 2015). Experts suggest partnering with high demand sectors and engaging with employers to create or replicate successful programs (MDRC-Kazis 2016).

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

The 2014 reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act requires expansion of sector partnerships in workforce programs, and use of career pathways for training. As of 2014, 21 states have state-level sector partnership policies that authorize state support for local sector partnerships. Another 20 states have targeted industry sector activities at the state level (King 2016).

National and regional career pathways initiatives include the Pathways to Prosperity Network, the Alliance for Quality Care Pathways, and the National Career Cluster Framework (King 2016). State-level examples include the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (AR Pathways), and Oregon’s Green Career Pathways Roadmaps (OR-Green career pathways). Other programs include WorkAdvance and the SNAP Employment and Training Program (MDRC-Kazis 2016). 

Implementation Resources

Mathematica-Joyce 2015 - Joyce K, Derr M, Mastri A, et al. Resources for connecting TANF recipients and other low-income families to good jobs. Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2015.

CCRS-Modules - College & Career Readiness & Success Center (CCRS). Career pathways modules.

CLASP-Alliance for quality career pathways - Alliance for Quality Career Pathways. Shared vision, strong systems: the alliance for quality career pathways framework version 1.0. Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

JFF-Initiatives - Jobs for the Future (JFF). Initiatives.

Advance CTE-Career clusters - Advance CTE: State leaders connection learning to work. Career Clusters.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

CCRC-Zeidenberg 2010 - Zeidenberg M, Cho SW, Jenkins D. Washington state’s integrated basic education and skills training program (I-BEST): New evidence of effectiveness. Community College Research Center (CCRC). 2010: Working Paper 20.

Mathematica-Gash 2010 - Gash A, Mack M. Career ladders and pathways for the hard-to-employ. Princeton: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2010.

Maguire 2009 - Maguire S, Freely J, Clymer C, Conway M. Job training that works: Findings from the sectoral employment impact study. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures (P/PV); 2009.

Upjohn-King 2015 - King CT, Prince HJ. Chapter 8 Moving sectoral and career pathway programs from promise to scale. In: Van Horn C, Edwards T, Greene T eds. Transforming U.S. workforce development policies for the 21st century. Kalamazoo, Michigan: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. 2015:195-230.

MDRC-Hossain 2015 - Hossain F. Serving out-of-school youth under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (2014). Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). 2015.

Holzer 2017* - Holzer HJ. The role of skills and jobs in transforming communities. Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research. 2017;19(1):171-191.

MDRC-Kazis 2016 - Kazis R. MDRC research on career pathways. New York, NY: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2016.

Gasper 2017* - Gasper JM, Henderson KA, Berman DS. Do sectoral employment programs work? New evidence from New York City’s sector-focused career centers. Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society. 2017;56(1):40-72.

Mathematica-Martinson 2016 - Martinson K, Williams J, Needels K, et al. The green jobs and health care impact evaluation: Findings from the impact study of four training programs for unemployed and disadvantaged workers. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2016.

MDRC-Hendra 2016 - Hendra R, Greenberg DH, Hamilton G, et al. Encouraging evidence on a sector-focused advancement strategy: A preview summary of two-year impacts from the WorkAdvance demonstration. New York, NY: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2016.

Giani 2017* - Giani M, Fox HL. Do stackable credentials reinforce stratification or promote upward mobility? An analysis of health professions pathways reform in a community college consortium. Journal of Vocational Education & Training. 2017;69(1):100-122.

Brookings-Holzer 2015 - Holzer HJ. Higher education and workforce policy: Creating more skilled workers (and jobs for them to fill). Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution; 2015.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

AR Pathways - Arkansas Career Pathways.

King 2016 - King CT, Juniper CJ, Coffey R, Smith TC. Promoting two-generation strategies: A getting-started guide for state and local policymakers (revised and updated). Austin, TX: Ray Marshall Center, University of Texas-Austin; 2016.

MDRC-Kazis 2016 - Kazis R. MDRC research on career pathways. New York, NY: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2016.

OR-Green career pathways - WorkSource Oregon. Oregon green career pathways.

Date Last Updated

Nov 16, 2017