Career Pathways: What They Are and Why We Need Them

By Whitaker, Judy | Techniques, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Career Pathways: What They Are and Why We Need Them


Whitaker, Judy, Techniques


The topic of career pathways has gained momentum across the country. It is the latest effort in the field of career development to assist young people to be able to map out their high school and postsecondary courses of study which will lead them to a meaningful and productive future. Although the philosophy of career pathways has been developing for a number of years, one of the highlights of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006 (Perkins IV) is the requirement for the development and implementation of "career and technical programs of study."

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Programs of study provide precise outlines of focused courses which can include both high school and postsecondary programs. The program of study is a pathway that students can follow to find career success. The initiative from Perkins IV uses best practices which are already in place in successful career and technical education (CTE) programs across the country. These include the priorities from the SCANS report and the school-to-work initiative, and the philosophy of Tech Prep, career clusters and career academies. In short, career pathways provides the scaffolding upon which young people can navigate a series of career development activities and courses which make high school relevant and make the workplace a reality.

According to Dan Hull, a noted leader in the field of career pathways, "A career pathway is a coherent, articulated sequence of rigorous academic and career/technical courses, commencing in the ninth-grade and leading to an associate degree, baccalaureate degree, or industry certification." According to this definition, junior high and middle school students can begin their career journey by exploring careers and beginning to make tentative commitments to a specific career field. As students enter high school and become more sophisticated, they can focus their coursework in a specific career cluster. As they narrow that search in high school even more, and prepare to move to their postsecondary training, they can choose a career pathway that will lead them to their own unique career success. For the student, the journey goes from broad, general choices to more specific and focused education and training.

What's in a Name?

Most states have taken programs and practices and aligned them with the Career Pathways Initiative. Because it is state-specific, the language may vary from state to state. For the casual or outside observer, the language may sound confusing. People talk about career clusters, career pathways, career majors, career focus, career fields, and career areas. In a simplified view, it is best to think of the conversation as going from broad to more specific terms. In other words, career clusters, career fields, and career areas are broad categories or groupings. Career locus or career major becomes more focused and career pathways represent an even more specific sequence of courses.

Career Pathways Initiative

The Career Pathways Initiative is the latest education reform plan to feature career planning as an integral part of the student's schooling. The 100-year tradition of career guidance began with Frank Parsons in 1908 with the establishment of the first-of-a-kind vocational bureau designed to help people understand their own unique talents and abilities and understand the increasingly complex workplace. That effort has continued through many iterations of federal funding for career education to include the present Perkins IV. Part of the infrastructure for career pathways includes a process by which students are able to navigate through the many, sometimes confusing, choices they encounter, When young people are left without guidance through the pathways maze, they often choose careers by default or by their own limited knowledge and may end up in a career that is not suited for them. The best assurance that young people will make informed career choices is to connect the Career Pathways Initiative with strong counseling and guidance programs that allow students to participate in individual planning and career exploration.

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