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Taking the long view: Designing pathways for economic mobility

Education, Human Services

Rachel Pleasants McDonnell

Rachel Pleasants McDonnell

Sara Lamback

Sara Lamback

This is the first installment in a series exploring the core tenets of Kresge’s Boosting Opportunities for Social and Economic Mobility for Families (BOOST) initiative. Launched in 2019, BOOST supports partnerships between community colleges and human services nonprofits in six cities nationwide to connect people with low incomes to critical human services and educational pathways that will help them climb the social and economic ladder. Its core tenets are social and economic mobility, career pathways, partnership, learning, family-centered approaches and racial equity, and sustainability.

In the coming months, Kresge and our partners will share what we are learning, the issues we are grappling with, and what we hope to achieve. Our intent is to contribute to conversations and learning that will support family social and economic mobility.

Below, Rachel Pleasants McDonnell and Sara Lamback from JFF, Kresge’s learning and management partner, discuss how BOOST helps community partners build long-term pathways grounded in the experiences of real people to help learners launch careers. 

For many families, the journey from precarious circumstances to economic stability to prosperity can be long and winding, and it likely includes a mix of learning and working that spans industries and institutions. It’s a journey that can easily be disrupted, as we have seen throughout the pandemic. The BOOST initiative aims to help families successfully navigate this journey.

BOOST emphasizes pathways to long-term economic mobility for learners and their families, with approaches that reflect the demands of local labor markets and incorporate community input. It takes a fresh look at the career pathways approach that has been around for more than a decade but has not always led to long-term economic mobility. For BOOST communities, pathway design starts by asking this question: What are the conditions in which short-term training can actually lead to long-term career advancement?

The dramatic labor market disruption caused by COVID adds urgency to that question. With unemployment at record levels, workers need opportunities to rapidly build new in-demand skills. That type of training can lead to near-term economic stability. But near-term stability isn’t enough—workers need pathways that lead to long-term prosperity.

Real-World Career Trajectories

At Achieving the Dream’s DREAM 2021 conference in February 2021, JFF explored what it looks like to build comprehensive pathways grounded in real people and real places that equip learners for long-term economic mobility. We shared the results of research we conducted with Burning Glass that informed how BOOST approaches pathways design, and we invited BOOST partners Baltimore City Community College and the Center for Urban Families, as well as Dallas College (a participant in JFF’s Google IT Support Professional Certificate program) to discuss how they are approaching pathways development.

In a presentation titled “Locally Relevant Pathways,” JFF shared data about the likely trajectories of people starting their careers in different types of occupations.

Working with Burning Glass, we looked at people’s actual career histories by analyzing millions of resumes and identified three major categories of middle-skill occupations: “lifetime,” “springboard,” and “static” jobs.

Lifetime and springboard jobs are both strong options for people seeking upward mobility. Lifetime jobs are roles that represent attractive long-term career options; they pay well from the start and offer regular opportunities for salary increases. For example, a pathway to a lifetime job could focus on getting learners into and through licensed practical nursing (LPN) programs. Springboard jobs may offer modest pay, but they put people in a position to advance. A short-term IT credential could open the door to an array of springboard jobs, and workers in those positions could pursue additional credentials that lead to better-paying options. Static occupations, on the other hand, often don’t pay very well and may not offer job security. They can be a way to get back into the labor market, but they’re unlikely to lead to opportunities for long-term economic mobility.

A Powerful Framework

This research is powerful because it provides a framework for thinking about the types of jobs and credentials that training providers should focus on as part of their efforts to build long-term career pathways. It pushes colleges and their partners to think beyond starting wages and employer demand for specific skills and consider the long-term career implications of the programs they develop. In other words, it forces them to ask themselves whether they are preparing learners to get a job or launch a career.

Using this framework as a starting point, colleges, community partners, and employers can work together to identify credentials and careers that drive economic mobility, and they can consider the resources and supports students need to succeed along pathways to those careers. Baltimore City Community College has used this approach to design sector-based pathways that allow for upward and lateral mobility within sectors such as health care. For example, the school’s human services program pathway starts by preparing students for community health worker positions, and it can lead to additional credentials in addiction counseling, social work, law enforcement, and gerontology.

The framework also helps colleges and their partners turn what could have been static jobs into springboard opportunities. Dallas College is doing that with its Google IT Support Professional Certificate program. By pairing the IT credential’s coursework with that of a Patient Care Technician program, the school gives learners an opportunity to not only develop skills that are currently in demand given the rise in telehealth, but also earn a highly marketable tech credential that can open up opportunities in health care and other sectors. And in Baltimore, the Center for Urban Families works with employer partners to build ongoing skill development into entry-level jobs that might otherwise be static jobs.

Strong Partnerships Yield Strong Pathways

Forging connections between colleges and human services providers makes it possible to build stronger pathways that include both learning opportunities and social supports.

The partnership between Baltimore City Community College and the Center for Urban Families offers a case in point: The leaders and team members at the Center for Urban Families know their clients—what they need to achieve near-term stability, and what they aspire to achieve in the longer term. They also know what their members desire from employment—beyond wages, they seek employers that will respect them and invest in their long-term success. For their part, the faculty and administrators at Baltimore City Community College know how to prepare students to earn marketable credentials, and they know what skills and competencies employers seek. Together, the partners are able to develop pathways that focus on the whole person and create a strong foundation for employment. These pathways begin with case management, goal setting, and supportive services, and they incorporate career development and job placement along the way.

Key Questions That Lead to Better Pathways

For the human services nonprofits and community colleges that are working together in BOOST’s six cities, designing prosperity-oriented pathways starts with an effort to develop a deep understanding of both the populations they aim to serve and the sectors whose workforce needs they aim to fulfill. To do that, they tap one another’s unique areas of expertise and analyze labor market data to identify the career opportunities that are available, and the skills that are in demand, in specific sectors of the local economy.

When they assess a particular sector of the economy (such as health care or manufacturing), the BOOST partners look beyond just wages and job openings. They also look for answers to questions like these:

  • What are the durable skills and competencies that employers are seeking?
  • What are the characteristics of good jobs in a particular sector?
  • What are the realistic career advancement options within a sector, and what is required for advancement?
  • What training and credentials lead to a raise or a promotion?
  • What credentials open up the possibility of career mobility with other employers?
  • What employers are committed to longer-term career advancement?

When designing pathways for their target populations (such as Head Start parents or English learners), the partners explore questions like these:

  • What skills do learners already have, and how do those skills align with current labor market opportunities?
  • What are learners’ long-term career goals, and what do they prioritize when making career decisions?
  • What do learners need to be successful at each phase of their careers?
  • What supports to do learners need to engage in educational opportunities?

The dramatic labor market disruption caused by COVID is pushing many education and workforce professionals to think differently about pathways design. Because displaced workers urgently need income, there is a heavy focus right now on short-term training programs that immediately lead to jobs. The framework of springboard, lifetime, and static jobs is a critical tool for helping both education providers and families make informed decisions about which career fields and credentials to pursue. If our goal is equitable economic recovery, we need to design pathways that support both near-term security and long-term prosperity.

Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
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