Did you ever stay somewhere on vacation that seemed out of date or needed repairs?

My husband and I spent a long weekend at the beach recently, enjoying the alternating stormy waves and sunny calm that characterize winters on the Oregon coast. The view from our 3rd floor condo was spectacular; inside however, the unit showed its age. While clean and well-stocked, the place had fallen behind the times. Rooms had been designed with good-quality, modern furnishings and tasteful decor – in the early 1980’s. And while tremendous attention had been paid to keeping the all-white carpeting clean and fresh, the kitchen drawers had fallen into disrepair and the appliances were sorely outdated. In all, the condo felt comfortable and safe, but not as useful and appealing as it could have been for its occupants. Of course, this reminded me of Career Pathways programs.

Renovate Pathways for the Long Term

Like building structures, most solidly-built community college Career Pathways programs will stand the test of time, but they still need occasional renovations to keep them up to date. In the case of Pathways programs, those updates need to respond to changing job markets, industry skill requirements, and student populations.

Sometimes all that might be needed to stay relevant are “cosmetic changes” – new marketing and advising materials, a shift to more online and hybrid courses, or professional development for instructors to help them stay current with industry trends. Other times, more “structural alterations” may be needed, such as redesigning certificate coursework to train for emerging occupations or meet industry certification standard revisions.  And as with a building, there may be a point at which college administrators must tear down a Pathways program and either eliminate it or rebuild it from the ground up.

It all comes down to the Six Cs of the Pathways Renovation Toolbox.

After a decade working with Career Pathways, I’ve learned some basic principles and practices that help community colleges undertake long-term renovations that strengthen program foundations, expand training to meet local industry needs, provide a safe learning environment for students, and increase retention and completion.  Recently I’ve been working with a rural community college to renovate several of their CTE (career-technical education) Pathways programs, and am using the tools of the Six Cs of the Pathways Renovation Toolbox to guide the team’s work.

The diagram below summarizes the components (the tools) and interaction among these principles and practices. Each of the Cs (Community, Certification, Credentials, Careers, Completion, and Coursework) represents an area of work within the renovation process. Depending on the condition of the Pathways “building,” college teams will spend time focused on some areas more than others; and just as in the building renovation process, some work can be do-it-yourself (in-house) while other construction may need the help of professionals. The tools complement each other, and you may find that work in one area helps strengthen or expand work in others.

Six Cs

Open the Toolbox.

Each of the six “Cs” in the Pathways Renovation Toolbox contributes to the overall renovation process. Many times I have seen college faculty jump into the program review process and become fixated on just one or two aspects (often Coursework or Completion rates), rather than take a more comprehensive approach. The results may appear to work well in the short-term, but without a review of all six areas they often have more problems to fix later on.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Six Cs and how each tool (focus area) can be used:

Community:

Each Pathway exists within and responds to the local labor market. One of the first things I do when renovating a Pathway is to seek out the most current data on jobs and industry trends. I read up on emerging occupations, ask employers, workforce, and economic development partners about what skills they are seeking in the workplace, and talk with faculty about what they are hearing from students. These data will inform decisions about Coursework and Credentials, and in turn will be informed by Certifications, Completions, and Careers.

Certification:

One of the easiest sources of current skill requirements for most occupations is the industry-recognized certification. While not every employer may be requiring certification of skills, particularly for entry positions, many see them as stepping stones to future job opportunities. When I renovated an Industrial Maintenance Technology Pathway recently, I used the MSSC-CPT (Manufacturing Skill Standards Council’s Certified Production Technician) national certification as a core for both Pathways certificates and the AAS degree. The local employer consortium members were not currently requiring the MSSC-CPT. However, when I shared the list of skills in Safety, Quality, Maintenance Awareness, and Manufacturing Processes, they not only strongly supported the certification as the basis for the Pathway, they wanted to know if they could set up training sessions so their current employees could earn the credential. Faculty members value the clear outcomes that can form the basis of Coursework redesign, and students appreciate a Credential that has meaning in the workplace.

Credentials:

This comes down to 3 fundamental questions for me: Do the current Credentials (e.g., certificates of completion, associate degrees, industry certifications) directly lead to jobs? Do they build, like stepping stones, to higher-paying jobs and opportunities, allowing students to move between work and lifelong learning? And how do the current credentials connect with high schools, adult basic education programs, workforce development training, and university articulation? The answers to these questions come in part from a review of Community, Completion, and Career data, and they will impact the decisions on what Coursework needs to be added, eliminated, or revised within each Credential.

Careers:

Are students getting and keeping jobs? How do you know?  If not, what are you going to do about it?  This is an area where professionals in the workforce and economic development arenas will be invaluable, as many colleges don’t have the resources to track graduate placement and retention data. Feedback from counseling staff, local employers, and former students will also inform colleges about whether all their effort to “chunk” up learning into certificates is really working.

Completion:

When I began renovation on a small community college’s Criminal Justice program, not only did I have trouble determining how many students had completed certificates or degrees, it was difficult to track consistent enrollment and advising figures. This was due in part to the small staff size, but it was also reflective of the way many students seemed to view college enrollment. While some entered community college with clear career goals, most were still exploring options and took a more haphazard approach to coursework selection. One of the priorities for this college was to build a more robust student advising component for their Pathways programs, which would allow them to increase certificate completions and to more accurately forecast enrollment and scheduling. Completion data were also critical to renovating their Pathways.

Coursework:

As I noted earlier, this is often the first and only area that CTE faculty focus on when renovating Pathways. A cynic might suggest that this is self-preservation; if courses are dropped or changed within a certificate or degree, it might mean less need for instructors and/or a change in teaching routines. I prefer to see Coursework renovation as an opportunity to not only revise outcomes based on Certification and Community input, but a chance to explore new ways of instructional delivery – online, hybrid, weekend or concentrated one-week scheduling, self-directed lab, or partnerships with other educational or industry training providers. Completion data also play a role here; if there are courses that students are not taking, perhaps because they are perceived as irrelevant to the industry or there are scheduling conflicts, it can be addressed in the renovation process.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” (A. Maslow)

I believe Abraham Maslow got this one right – it is tempting for colleges to only focus on one or two aspects (tools) in building and maintaining their Career Pathways programs. The reasons are many, and may include: limited funding or staff resources; poor understanding about local industry or economic drivers and how they impact CTE programs; faculty who are unwilling or unable to change their curriculum; or minimal understanding of Career Pathways across the institution. Treating everything like a nail in a renovation can have disastrous, expensive, and potentially deadly consequences for the owner; doing so with Pathways programs, while not as lethal, can be just as disastrous for our students.

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