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 www.qualityinfo.org 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 (www.onetonline.org) 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 technological 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.