Renovating Career Pathways


Did you ever stay somewhere on vacation that seemed out of date or needed repairs?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the all-white carpeting clean and fresh, the kitchen drawers had fallen into disrepair and the appliances were sorely outdated.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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Build Your Own Career Pathway

Over the holidays, I spent time talking with my friend Tracy about her son and daughter and about the career and educational challenges they now faced as they made their way from adolescence to young adulthood. She asked, “Can you help them figure out a career pathway?” Of course I’m always happy to share my experiences and expertise to help them navigate college and job choices, but I believe there are also tasks that only they can do to create their own unique career path.

Career Pathways, as an educational and workforce initiative, is built on common principles and strategies. Regardless of whether programs reside within a secondary or post-secondary institution, are part of local workforce development organizations, or cross multiple entities from youth to adult programs, they share many traits. While a formal Career Pathways program requires the development of targeted, segmented skills training and support services within one or more organizations, the same common principles and strategies that encompass that program could be adapted at an individual level to create a more personal career path. In fact, I would argue that a successful Career Pathways program, regardless of the venue, helps students learn to guide and support themselves through lifelong learning.

Here are some ways that you (and my friend Tracy’s children) can use Pathways strategies to build your own career pathway.

Do your homework.

Building a career path that will progress in job responsibilities and wage increase takes work. Certainly it helps if you perform well in academic and technical program settings. However, much of the long-term success begins with understanding the professional field you have chosen, not just tasks, skills, or job titles but also how those occupations fit into the local community.  For example, if you are interested in the healthcare field, here are 3 easy things to do: 1) find out which local healthcare employers are expanding operations or actively hiring; 2) research occupations in that field that pay well and what training is needed at the entry level; and 3) read a few articles about the industry to find out if there are any new or emerging occupations that might give you an edge in the job market.

Labor market data are available for any region through your state employment department. If you live in Oregon, visit and check out all the resources available for you in your career exploration. Under Jobs and Careers, you can find great articles about new and trending professions, or search a keyword or job title in the Occupational Profiles to find wages, projected growth, and job openings. When I’m working with secondary or post-secondary institutions to design formal Career Pathways, this site is one of my go-to resources.  The other one I use is the US Department of Labor’s O*NET OnLine ( website. In addition to national data like that of the state site, you can click on My Next Move to browse career ideas or just list the kinds of things you like to do and the system will help match your interests to careers.  This kind of homework is far more interesting and engaging than much of what you might have remembered from school, and it will move you along on your own career path.

Walk the talk.

I’ve learned that many of our ideas about what a job or career might be like are based on everything except reality. We see TV shows depicting stereotypes of professions or workplaces. We hear from relatives about their work experiences, “back in the day.” Throughout our daily lives, we encounter a wide range of occupations but know very little about both the positive and challenging aspects of each job. In formal Career Pathways programs, students are encouraged to job shadow, seek internships, go on informational interviews, or participate in cooperative work experiences.

So why can’t you do the same with your personal career path development?  Go online and watch videos of modern workplaces in industries that interest you. Ask local companies if you can take a tour, or interview employees about what they do all day. Don’t just talk about a job – walk in its shoes and see how it fits before you commit.

Make it count.

Far too often I see individuals complete training programs that don’t connect to other advanced training or credentials, and they hit a dead end in their career path. They might take a series of courses through an online business school, for example, which gets them into a profession, but when they want to go back to school to complete a business degree they discover that they have to take the same courses for credit because none of the training was transferable. It’s frustrating, expensive, and can keep people from moving on in their careers. But you can avoid this trap.

Career Pathways in educational and workforce settings are ideally designed to make everything count. Every course within a certificate articulates to a degree, Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) captures work experiences, and credit is awarded for industry-recognized certifications.  It’s a deliberate approach, and you can do the same with your own career path-building. Ask training providers how their offerings align with your higher career goals (e.g., academic certificate or degree, industry-recognized credentials, progression within a professional field) and choose those that move you forward. Talk with college counseling staff about how to get academic credit for your work and life experiences.  As a job-seeker, pursue opportunities within your chosen career area, not just any job that comes along. You have choices, so choose wisely.

Set a goal AND make a plan.

Think about your present work situation. Are you doing something you always planned to do, or did it just work out that way?  Many of us inadvertently follow the advice of the Cheshire Cat in Alice Through the Looking Glass:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

This exchange has been commonly summarized as, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  But the deeper meaning for me in this conversation is that Alice doesn’t care where she is going, and she just takes life as it comes. If you are building a personal career pathway, you can still be open to whatever opportunities come along; the difference between you and Alice is that you are being deliberate in adjusting your short-term plans towards your long-term career goals.

In my own life, I started out with the long-term career goal of being a teacher, and I followed a traditional plan of earning academic degrees and seeking classroom-based job opportunities. At various points, external forces caused me to alter that plan and move from high school teacher to principal, then from program coordinator to education and workforce consultant running my own business. My long-term career goal hasn’t varied – to teach – but the venues and job titles have. Certainly I’ve had to take many seemingly-unrelated jobs to support myself and my family. However, in each situation I tried to develop skills that would help me become a better teacher. What skills are you developing in your present job that will get you closer to your long-term career goals?

Build a wall (of support services).

Research studies have clearly shown that one of the most important success strategies in the Career Pathways initiative is the strong presence of student support services. Within institutions, these can include faculty advising, academic counseling, tutoring, mentorships, child care, transportation, healthcare availability, financial aid, and technology assistance. In addition, support services come through staff and faculty who are trained to support student diversity (e.g., culture, race, socio-economic class, gender, disabilities) and through policies that promote equity and inclusion.

As you build your personal career pathway, consider what resources you need to be successful. I attended graduate school when my children were very young, and I could not have succeeded without the support of my extended family providing child care and my husband’s willingness to keep the household running while I was away.  I couldn’t afford the textbooks for some courses, so I worked with my teachers to borrow them from the library and copied the required reading pages.  Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from this time in my life was this: Not only is it okay to ask for help, but it’s expected. None of us can achieve our career goals alone; you need to build a wall of support around you.

Just do it.

Although this is Nike’s tagline, it is also some of the most profound career advice I can give you. All the wisdom of every career planning book, article, website, speaker, and workshop in the world ultimately boils down to these three words. Even when educational and workforce institutions craft the most comprehensive Career Pathway program, align skills to local employer needs, build a strong network of student support services, and design engaging learning experiences for students, it is all for naught if individuals don’t sign up and show up. To paraphrase Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, your career journey of a thousand miles begins with the single step of a personal career pathway.

Linking In to Career Pathways

This week I attended the first of a 3-part workshop series on “Leveraging the Power of LinkedIn,” sponsored by my local Small Business Development Center. As I reflected on the key concepts presented, it occurred to me that these ideas have direct relevance with how community colleges and workforce development organizations are designing, developing, and delivering Career Pathways programs.

Leverage the power of Career Pathways by linking in.

No, I don’t mean marketing Pathways through LinkedIn. Rather, consider the fundamental building blocks of that social media tool as they apply to your own Career Pathways program.  What does your organization’s “Pathways profile” say about you?

Do you have enough Connections?

According to various studies, there seems to be a “magic tipping point” of 500 Connections (i.e., individuals to whom you are linked) to optimize your LinkedIn profile and achieve the most networking benefits. In the same way, there are tipping points within your organization and in your community to indicate how your Pathways programs are impacting the workforce. Building connections within LinkedIn is simple; you just click on pictures and invitations are automatically sent. Pathways Connections take more time and effort, but the payoff is greater: long-term program sustainability, greater alignment to jobs, and increased student success. These Connections can include the number of:

  • CTE (career-technical education) programs that contain Pathways certificates
  • CTE faculty who actively promote and advise students along career paths, rather than just on the course requirements in a program
  • Local employers who are engaged in building and supporting Pathways programs (e.g., through internships, job shadowing, resource-sharing, promoting certificates and training with employees)
  • Adult Basic Skills and ESOL students who successfully transition through Pathways training into a college-level CTE degree program
  • High school students who complete dual credit coursework, earn college-level Pathways certificates, and enroll in college CTE programs upon graduation
  • Individuals who seek out and successfully complete Pathways certificates within a degree program
  • Students who complete a certificate, find related work, and return for additional certificates and degrees over a period of time.

What are your Key Words?

LinkedIn, like most social media, is all about Key Words. It is how we query search engines for information and it is how programmers build the algorithms to organize and produce the results. Key Words in LinkedIn capture what you do – what words people would use to search out your skills and services. They are focused and easily understood. Career Pathways programs should be marketing themselves in the same way. How do you tell the community what you do?

In my work as a researcher, I frequently need to search college websites for information about their programs, and it always surprises me how often Pathways programs are set up as separate entities with little or no alignment to the college’s CTE offerings. There are frequently no indications on the department webpages that tell me Pathways options exist (e.g., Adult Basic Skills transition programs, ESOL training, non-credit skills training, industry certifications preparation/testing, certificates that build towards a degree). How can students, workforce partners, and employers find you? Marketing flyers and promotional videos are great tools to share once they know your programs exist, but the reality is that most will start by searching your college website.

Tell your story.

My LinkedIn workshop presenter described the Summary section of the Profile as a place where I can tell my story – not just to describe what I do, but to connect with my audience so they see how a connection with me will benefit them. To do that, I need to ask some key questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What is important to them?
  • What do they care about?
  • How do they benefit by working with me?
  • What skills or services do I most want to be found for?

Sound like good questions for Pathways faculty and staff to ask? Agreed. Too often, Career Pathways program staff and leadership either try to provide everything to everyone, or they so narrowly focus their services so most people don’t see how they might benefit. A place to start, both for the LinkedIn Summary and for Pathways programs, is to see what others are saying about you. What words do they choose to describe your program and its components? In my LinkedIn Summary, I note that my clients tell me they value the way I can balance both the big-picture vision and the day-to-day details to successfully manage their projects. What do your students, local employers, faculty, and workforce development partners say about your Pathways programs?

Improve your profile.

Every time I log into my LinkedIn overview, I am urged to “improve my profile.” I can see how many Connections I have, who viewed my profile in the last few weeks, and opportunities to share an update, upload a photo, or publish a post.  While I am still reserving judgement on how much this app will improve my company’s bottom line, I do see the value of building community and networking. The education and workforce communities have their own ways of networking, and while Career Pathways as national and statewide initiatives have gained considerable respect and prominence in both arenas, there is still much more work to do.  And it really does begin with you – find the tipping points, make the connections across systems, and tell your story. I know I’d like to hear it. Send me a note or post a comment and let me know about your program.

Blueprint for a Pathway


Pathways are not new to education.

For over a century, employers and educators have worked to develop courses of student to facilitate students’ matriculation into the workforce. Ultimately, that’s the function of a pathway. Career Pathways help to design curriculum and course schedules around student needs.

The working definition I use with faculty and administration formalizes this concept.

Career Pathways are coherent, articulated sequences of rigorous academic and career courses, commencing with the ninth grade (or lower), and leading to an associate’s degree, an industry-recognized certificate or licensure, and/or a baccalaureate degree and beyond.

In simpler terms, Pathways are connected educational building blocks, with integrated work experiences and support services, which enable students (youth and adults) to combine work and learning, and to advance over time to better jobs and higher levels of education.

So what does a Career Pathway look like?

As you talk with educators across the country about Career Pathways, you will discover that, like snowflakes, no two programs look exactly the same.  Some programs focus primarily on developing career areas at the high school level, structuring career-technical courses and sequences to meet local industry needs and integrating academic skills in contextualized activities.

Other programs may partner with local workforce development organizations to support retraining due to layoffs or career changes. You will see programs in adult basic skills settings, designing training for entry-level occupations and building language and workplace culture skills with immigrants and low-skilled workers.

In many states, community and technical colleges have taken the central role of connecting high school CTE programs to certificates of completion and degrees, and then built articulation agreements with 4-year institutions, internships with local industry, and training programs with workforce development centers to create a seamless pathway for lifelong learning.

Regardless of the setting, program model, or the population, successful Career Pathways programs have several elements in common.

Career Pathways share common characteristics.

In programs designed using Career Pathways strategies, many of the following components are part of the structure and implementation to help ensure student success. I’ll talk more about some of these in future blog posts.

  • Modularized Curriculum. Grouping skill sets and coursework into smaller segments that are aligned with industry certifications and/or occupational skill requirements helps move students from school to work quickly and easily.
  • Credentials. Using industry-recognized credentials (e.g., certifications, certificates, degrees) provides easy articulation across programs and institutions, and provides employers with information about an individual’s skills related to a specific job. Credentials can also show student readiness for advanced training.
  • Roadmaps. Graphically depicting the courses or curriculum blocks on a roadmap makes it simple to understand and easy to explain to students. Core elements to consider including are occupations, wages, industry certifications, academic credentials, and local labor market information.
  • Bridge Programs. Developing programs to prepare bridge individuals in Adult Basic Skills and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programs to enter credit-based career-technical courses helps connect them to a lifelong career path.
  • Wrap-around Services. These student support services and strategies keep individuals engaged in the Pathway, and can include tutoring, child care, case management, and job search support.
  • Internships, Cooperative Work Experience, and Job Shadowing. Opportunities to provide on-site structured learning experiences with local industry serve students in many ways: they see what the workplace is really like, discover the wide array of jobs and career paths within the companies, learn skills on the job and apply classroom theory to work situations, and network with future employers.

All these components help support students, connect them with the skills needed in the workplace, and allow them to move between work and learning throughout their lives. However . . .

The most critical strategy to successful Career Pathways is Alignment.

Program and curricular alignment are outcomes of partnerships and collaboration among a network of educators, employers, and workforce and economic development entities. No one organization has the complete picture, yet all should be focused on the same goal – supporting individuals as they move from training to work and back again, progressing along a clear, connected career path. Some have likened it to getting on and off a commuter train at various stops along the way.

Run it on their schedules, accommodate lots of on and off traffic, facilitate good connections to long-term destinations.”  David Prince, WA State Board for Community & Technical Colleges

Each learning experience should be directly connected to the next, with no dead ends (e.g., courses that don’t apply towards a degree) or wasted time (e.g., not getting credit for work or life experiences).

I’ll talk more about this important component in my next post.

In the meantime, please share your thoughts about Career Pathways.

What’s working and what’s not working for you?  Tell me about your program – I’d like to share your successes with others. What challenges are you facing?  Have you read any good studies or articles that you want to share?  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Why Another Blog About Career Pathways?

Why indeed?

Many blogs and articles can tell you why it works, when it doesn’t, and what components are needed to ensure success. We know the statistics about completers, credentials, certifications, bridge programs, and support systems. We all have anecdotes about first-generation college students who connected with the right training to be successful in a career, and certainly one doesn’t have to look far to find multi-million dollar grant programs building pathways from high school through graduate studies.So why start another blog about Career Pathways?

In a word, perspective.

Most articles and blogs about Career Pathways are written either by researchers, who dive deeply into data, or by educational institutions with grant-funded projects, who promote their strategies and successes. Both perspectives are valuable to the conversation, but neither address the day-to-day challenges of practitioners who navigate the front lines of development and delivery — the nexus of education, workforce, and economic development.

That’s where I live.

“Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Originally coined by Rufus Miles (Princeton University) in the 1970s, this adage has been cited by everyone from Nelson Mandela to Tom Peters, and in reference to such disparate topics as health care, environmental issues, politics, and organizational development. The notion of “perspective” will be a reoccurring theme in this blog, as it has been with my experiences in Career Pathways over the past decade.

Let me give you a bit of background.

I came to Career Pathways as a project coordinator at Chemeketa Community College, a mid-sized institution in Oregon. With over 10 years’ experience providing contracted training to local industry, I knew that community colleges needed to find other ways to support development of s skilled workforce. Non-credit classes in targeted skill areas produced immediate workers for employers, but the training didn’t apply towards college degrees. Offering 2-year degrees in career-technical fields allowed steady progression for community colleges to produce graduates, but the vast majority of students were not completing them.

A Career Pathways pioneer.

While on loan to the Oregon Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development in 2005, I was part of a team attending a National Governors Association conference on Career Pathways in community colleges.  I was immediately hooked — here was a way to tie training to industry needs, break degrees into smaller, more manageable “chunks” of credits that followed occupational progression, add wrap-around support systems to ensure completion, and design transitions from secondary to post-secondary and workforce development to educational credentials. Working with internal teams at Chemeketa as well as statewide representatives from all 17 community colleges, we built a series of Career Pathways models that are nationally recognized today.

Ten years later, my perspective on Pathways continues to evolve.

I left Chemeketa in 2011 and am now President of Connections Consulting Inc., an education and workforce consulting firm located in Salem, Oregon. I continue to help community colleges in multiple states redesign CTE programs to support students and meet industry needs. I also work directly with businesses, nonprofits, industry associations, and government agencies to more deliberately connect local labor market data, occupational skills (including cross-cutting skills), industry-recognized certifications, and credit-based instruction.

This requires big picture thinking and detailed focus simultaneously.

This eclectic mixture of “big-picture” policy and frameworks, and the “details” of aligning occupational and labor-market research with college course outcomes, provides a unique perspective of the internal workings of Career Pathways within secondary and post-secondary institutions. I have learned why it works, when it doesn’t, and the components of a successful Career Pathways program from the inside out.

Why another blog about Career Pathways? My perspective provides a unique window into this field, one that could change the way organizations design and deliver Pathways in the future.

Please join me in this transformation.

Take the first step by Following my Blog.