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Over the last decade, career pathways has emerged as a strategy to increase access to postsecondary training and education as well as improve educational attainment for low-income and low-skill adults. Defined as a framework, career pathways are “a series of connected education and training programs and support services that enable individuals to secure employment within a specific industry or occupational sector, and to advance over time to successively higher levels of education and employment in that sector.”1 Blending multiple elements that range from redesigning curricula and programs that lead to an industry-recognized credential to aligning the various missions of a community college and providing case management and wrap-around support services, career pathways are an important vehicle for the economic advancement of adults living at the economic margins.

Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI) has sought to advance career pathways in its own work and believes that a broader adoption of this framework within the community colleges would be of significant benefit to low-income, low-skill adults. Accordingly, with support and guidance from The Working Poor Families Project,2 SJI set out to explore how other states, in addition to Washington, are implementing this approach statewide. SJI hopes that this research will help to further the development of career pathways in Washington State as we seek to collaborate with Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges on ways to further expand the integration of this framework across all community colleges.

While a great deal of research on career pathways currently exists, SJI and The Working Poor Families Project saw an opportunity to add to this body of work by focusing exclusively on statewide efforts. The principal question we wanted to answer was what role could a state play in instituting career pathways, and what strategies could it employ to bring colleges, workforce development and economic development agencies, community organizations and employers to the table to accomplish this? To answer this question, the paper explores the efforts underway in Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, which represent three different stages of career pathways implementation: 1) mature – the fully implemented efforts underway in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oregon; 2) intermediate – the growing effort in Washington to develop critical tools to support the framework and enable students to access career pathways; and 3) emergent – Wisconsin’s burgeoning career pathways effort.

What follows is a documentation of the strategies, challenges, and lessons learned from these states. It should be seen as a complementary piece to the career pathways toolkits put forth by experts in the field such as The Workforce Strategy Center, the College and Career Transition Initiative, Jobs for the Future, and the League for Innovation in the Community College, among others. It is our hope that this paper will serve as a resource for other states that are interested in utilizing a career pathways framework.