Making Career Pathways As Detour-Free As Possible

Feb 15, 2023 2:15:00 PM


Getting from helpless kindergartner who picks his nose and eats it (what, just me?) to well-paid professional who can support himself and his family is no cake walk. In fact it’s an epic (academic and professional) journey that lasts decades. 

That journey is full of hazards–potential challenges that can slow students down or throw them off-course completely. 

For example: 

  • Most learners are not aware of all the different career options. 
  • Many struggle to identify careers that fit their talents, skills and interests. 
  • Students may not know what type of education, experiences and credentials they need to qualify and succeed in their desired career. 
  • There’s also the challenge of knowing where to find and afford the education and credentials they’ll need. 

A person’s success and satisfaction with their path on that journey and with their “destination” can be better or worse depending on the help they receive along the way.This is why it’s so important for state education leaders to think about pathways. 

Key Elements of Career Pathways

ExcelinEd, a national leader on education policy, has developed model policies for this issue that can guide states in helping all learners — regardless of age — access the paths that will lead to higher-wage careers. 

They identify five key elements to turn muddy roads pocked with pot-holes into career path superhighways. They are:

  • Information
    Data that helps learners understand what’s available, what’s good and what they can expect from different pathway and career options.
  • Exploration
    Opportunities to explore careers and get hands-on experiences that help learners set goals for their careers and any additional education they’ll need after high school.
  • Support
    Tailored professional guidance that helps learners choose a pathway that meets their needs and interests and then support them as they progress through it.
  • Planning
    Structures and resources that help learners set postsecondary and career goals—and map out the steps to achieve them.
  • Networks
    Employer and community engagement that helps learners build professional networks and empowers communities to support each learner’s journey.

ExcelinEd put together a great visual example that talks you through the pathways of two learners who both started off with the same goal to become a nurse, but ended up in very different places because of the strength of the pathway they had access to. It’s really worth checking out.

My Own Journey

My own pathway gave me some good experiences, but also some unnecessary detours. I had some help along the way, but made some suboptimal decisions on my own. 

In elementary school I decided I wanted to be a doctor. My friend’s dad was an anesthesiologist and their house was huge. My family, by contrast, spent some time on and off church welfare.

In high school I found out about a medical professions class which introduced students like me to some medical terminology and a cadaver, among other things. In my junior year, I decided to take a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) course which included some visits to a nursing care facility where we got to practice what we were learning under supervision. 

In the final weeks of the course, during one of the clinical visits, I saw an old woman with dementia moaning in pain on a bed as a few of us tried to change her adult diaper. Once we had rolled her to one side and opened the diaper, explosive diarrhea sprayed out across the bed and onto the floor. At that moment, I decided CNA life wasn’t for me. I finished the course, but didn’t bother taking the certification test.

I had thought being a CNA would give me a good foundation for becoming a doctor similar to how someone might start in the mail room and work their way up to the C-suite. The truth is, most of these misguided plans were simply my own idea. I might have had an opinion or two shared by my medical professions teacher, but I never really understood what a good pathway might be. 

My first year in college was wasted on general courses since I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I took two years off to serve as a missionary in Bolivia and when I returned to BYU I decided that chemical engineering was my destiny since I had scored well in math and science in high school and on my college entrance exam. But I was starting a year behind in a major that often graduated students in five years. I stacked physics, engineering, and calculus classes during my sophomore year and for the first time in my life started pulling in Cs Ds and an incomplete (which is just a nice way of saying I failed). 

Crushed, I finally went to see an academic counselor near the end of my sophomore year, took an interest test and decided to go into broadcast journalism.

I ended up doing alright for myself. I don’t pick my nose and eat it anymore and I have a career that pays the bills, provides opportunities for my family and brings a degree of personal satisfaction.

But as I’m writing this, I wonder how much time, money and energy I could have saved by talking to someone sooner (or someone more knowledgeable), or if I might have ended up in a different career entirely. 

There are a lot of learners out there who are at different points in their path and more who’ll come behind them. By building strong pathways that make good information easy to find, give learners a chance to explore and get the guidance they need and provide resources for them to plan and network, more people will have the opportunity to reach the destinations of their choosing.

Take Action: Visit ExcelinEd’s Pathways Navigation site and scroll down to the section titled: Same Goal, Different Outcomes | How Pathway Navigation & Advising Impacts Learners. I promise, if you’ve gotten this far, you won’t be disappointed. 

Lane Wright

Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand concepts. During his time at Education Post, and with previous organizations, Lane has interviewed teachers, students and local school leaders. He’s spent time watching them work in the classroom and helped them raise their voices on issues they care about. He’s also helped parents advocate—in the news, and before lawmakers—for a better education for their own kids. Lane, his wife, and three children live in Tallahassee, Florida, where his kids attend a public charter school.

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