Career pathways programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Career pathways programs offer occupation-specific training to low-skilled individuals for higher-skilled positions in high growth industries such as health care, advanced manufacturing, or information technology1, 2, 3. Such programs combine academic and technical education with supportive services; many also incorporate work experience and bridge programs. Career pathways are designed to allow individuals to participate in sequenced training courses of increasingly advanced skills and credentials with multiple entry and exit points, allowing participants to enter the labor force with marketable skills and credentials and return to education later, with credits allowing them to move towards a degree4. 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)3. Programs may offer training at the basic skills-level, entry-level, and/or offer upgrade training and education. Career pathways are often aimed at meeting regional workforce needs and may be components of sector-focused workforce initiatives1, 4.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased employment

  • Increased earnings

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased academic achievement

What does the research say about effectiveness?

Career pathways programs are a suggested strategy to increase employment and earnings for low-skilled individuals1, 5, out of school youth2, and hard-to-employ adults3. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Available evidence indicates that career pathways programs may increase employment and earnings more than traditional workforce development in some instances6, 7, 8, though program effects may fade over time7. Gains in earnings may be greater for participants in programs with longer durations; shorter programs may increase employment but not wages8.

Participation in programs that incorporate career pathways can increase educational attainment6, 9 and vocational credential receipt for workers with low incomes7, 10.

Experts suggest partnering with high demand sectors and engaging with employers to create or replicate successful programs11. 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 career pathways programs12.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by intervention design.

Career pathways programs are designed to reduce disparities in employment and income between workers coming from different socio-economic backgrounds, particularly low skilled individuals1, 5, including out of school youth2 and hard-to-employ adults3.

However, limited evidence suggests that despite completing shorter certificate programs at similar rates, students of color are less likely to complete longer term career pathway programs compared to their white peers. More research is needed to understand if under-represented students are diverted to lower skilled positions or are continuing along the career pathway8.

What is the relevant historical background?

Over the last several decades, workers with a high school education or less have experienced higher unemployment and limited to no growth in wages14. Globalization and technological advancements were disrupting labor markets, replacing stable jobs with more precarious employment, even before the Great Recession decimated the economy15. The concurrent decline of labor unions and jobs in manufacturing have driven down real wages and shifted many workers into lower paying industries, and rising benefit costs may also be contributing to wage stagnation16. In current economic conditions, large companies may also rely on temporary contracts and limited term employment, limiting employer-based investment in workers’ training and education15.

Career pathways programs are designed to improve career opportunities for adults and youth that lack the education and skills required to access good paying jobs with benefits, providing training to bridge the gap between these workers and employer’s needs14, 17. In 2012, the U.S. Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services formed a Federal partnership to encourage the use of career pathways to help youth and adults acquire the necessary skills and credentials to gain employment, and other federal agencies have since joined them18, 19. State, local, and tribal policymakers have been encouraged by the Federal partnership to align public workforce, education, and social and human services systems18.

Equity Considerations
  • What strategies can career pathways programs implement to recruit and retain students of color?
  • How can your workforce development programs be tailored to be more culturally competent?
  • How can career pathways programs partner with local or regional employers to meet current and future workforce needs?
  • What additional support or resources can programs provide to students that lack basic skills?
  • What underlying conditions contribute to training and skill gaps in your community? What other strategies can be implemented to address those underlying conditions?
Implementation Examples

The 2014 reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires use of career pathways for training provided through WIOA funding. The Pathways to Prosperity Network, the Alliance for Quality Care Pathways, and the National Career Cluster Framework1 are examples of national and regional career pathways initiatives. The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative is an example of a state-level initiative13.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

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. Washington, D.C.: Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

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, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2015.

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

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

US DOL-Career pathways toolkit - U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. DOL). Career pathways toolkit: A guide for system development.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 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.

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

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

4 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.

5 Holzer 2014 - Holzer HJ. Learning and earning: How to raise the labor market skills of low-income adults. Innovating to End Urban Poverty. 2014.

6 Urban-Eyster 2018 - Eyster L, Anderson T, Lerman RI, et al. Findings from the accelerating opportunity evaluation. Urban Institute. 2018:1-25.

7 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: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2016.

8 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.

9 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.

10 Chase-Lansdale 2017 - Chase-Lansdale LP, Sommer TE, Sabol TJ, et al. What are the effects of pairing head start services for children with career pathway training for parents? Community Action Project of Tulsa County. 2017:1-8.

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

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

13 AR Pathways - Arkansas Career Pathways. The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative can help with tuition and support for related expenses.

14 US DOL-46 Career pathways - U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. DOL), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy (OASP). Career pathways descriptive and analytical project.

15 Upjohn-Van Horn 2015 - 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.

16 Pew-DeSilver 2018 - DeSilver D. For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center; 2018.

17 Urban-Eyster 2018a - Eyster L, Gebrekristos S. Fulfilling the promise of career pathways: Strategies that support career advancement. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute; 2018.

18 PCRN-Career Pathways Systems - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Division of Academic and Technical Education, Perkins Collaborative Resource Network (PCRN). Career pathways systems.

19 US ED-OCTAE Career Pathways 2015 - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE). The evolution and potential of career pathways. 2015.