Career pathways are emerging as a promising, bipartisan solution to help adolescents and adults secure well-paying jobs and support employers searching for skilled workers. Although their design varies from state to state, these pathways are intended to help participants develop knowledge and skills in a particular career field, typically one that’s considered in-demand. Pathways often include secondary and post-secondary career and technical education (CTE) programs, work-based learning opportunities like internships or apprenticeships, and the opportunity to earn at least one post-secondary credential.
Career pathways programs can be especially promising for young adults. That’s because they’re typically more affordable than a traditional four-year university and don’t take as long to complete. They also offer myriad benefits—including on-the-job learning experience and job-related classroom training, boosted income, and valuable industry-recognized credentials—and they can open the door to well-paying jobs and in-demand careers. Amidst rising higher education costs and an economy that’s roiling in the wake of the pandemic, many advocates view investing in high-quality career pathways programs as an effective strategy to help young adults transition to the workforce.
To shed additional light on how career pathways programs can help young adults, Bellwether recently published a report that examines efforts in three states: Colorado, Texas, and Ohio. These states—which were chosen because they are geographically, politically, and demographically diverse—approach career pathways in vastly different ways. By interviewing policymakers, district leaders, and program administrators in each state, Bellwether was able to identify some common themes. This piece focuses on a few of the big takeaways for Ohio.
Ohio’s case study includes a brief overview of the state’s career pathways landscape—which the authors call “one of the nation’s most complex.” Like other states, Ohio uses Area Technical Centers, or ATCs, to deliver CTE at both the secondary and post-secondary level. The Buckeye State has over 100 ATCs.
At the secondary level, ATCs take the form of career-technical planning districts (CTPDs), which administer CTE programming to middle and high school students. There are currently ninety-two CTPDs in Ohio, and there are three types:
- Comprehensive CTPDs offer CTE programming in career centers or at high schools within a single traditional district. Examples include Columbus City Schools and the Massillon City School District.
- Compact/contract CTPDs are a group of districts that work together to offer CTE programming at high schools within member districts. For example, the Six District Educational Compact in northeast Ohio serves the districts of Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, Kent, Stow-Munroe Falls, Tallmadge, and Woodridge. Students who are enrolled in these districts can participate in CTE programs run by any of the districts within the CTPD.
- Joint vocational school districts (JVSD) serve two or more adjacent school districts but are governed by their own board of education and thus operate as their own independent district. Unlike comprehensive or compact/contract CTPDs, JVSDs exclusively offer CTE programming. They can also serve adult learners.
At the post-secondary level, the state has Ohio Technical Centers, which are independent CTE providers that offer training and credentials for in-demand jobs. These institutions primarily focus on career and credential attainment, which separates them from community colleges that typically focus more on degree attainment, and the centers are eligible for federal financial aid authorized under Title IV. OTCs often partner with CTPDs, and may even be co-located. This makes them more efficient, but also adds another layer of complexity to an already intricate system.
In recent years, Ohio lawmakers and leaders have prioritized the growth of pathways programs to help meet the state’s workforce needs. This increasing emphasis and the accompanying investment of state funds makes Ohio a model for other states. According to Bellwether, here are two of Ohio’s strengths and two areas for growth.
One of the common themes identified by Bellwether is that policymakers in all three states have leveraged bipartisan support to expand and improve career pathways initiatives. Ohio, for example, serves as a “striking example of bipartisanship” because of its long history of providing designated funding specifically for career pathways programs in the state’s biennial budget. Even when Ohio’s last Democratic governor had to slash government spending via the budget in the wake of the Great Recession, CTE programs and initiatives remained (and some even saw slight funding bumps). This year’s budget is no different. CTE spending has risen consistently during Republican Governor DeWine’s tenure, and he recently recommended additional increases. His proposal—which is currently working its way through the General Assembly—also charges the Ohio Department of Education with increasing the number of in-demand CTE programs and aims to incentivize schools and businesses to offer work-based learning opportunities to more students.
Another key factor that explains Ohio’s thriving career pathways sector is state leaders’ efforts to prioritize meaningful public-private partnerships. Bellwether highlighted Youngstown State University’s innovative partnership with IBM, which allows students to participate in a training program that helps them build skills and earn credentials in in-demand fields like cybersecurity, data science, and information technology. But Ohio has plenty of other examples, as well. Business Advisory Councils, which are locally focused bodies aimed at getting education and business leaders to work together to ensure that students have relevant learning experiences, have helped foster partnerships. There are also several state laws and grants aimed at funding collaboration between businesses, education and training providers, and community leaders.
Area for growth: Fighting stigmas
Bellwether notes that in all three states, career pathways programs “often suffer from longstanding stigma about their quality and purpose.” That’s because, in the past, teachers and administrators used them to track students they didn’t think were “fit for college,” and tracking efforts were often steeped in bias against low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. Bellwether acknowledges that although “extensive effort” has gone into addressing these issues and improving programs, stigmas persist. In fact, the Ohio policymakers, advocates, and stakeholders they interviewed identified persistent stigmas as one of the state’s most significant barriers to equitably expanding access and participation. Although Ohio has an “established history” with CTE, many students and families remain unaware of the myriad opportunities that are available to them or are misinformed about what career pathways are and aren’t. Advocates argue that the best way to overcome the public’s lack of knowledge (and persistent skepticism) is to provide state funding to raise awareness about available programs and their positive outcomes.
Area for growth: A lack of data
Of course, Ohio can’t effectively raise awareness without consistent and accurate data. Bellwether notes that, like many other states, Ohio has “fragmented data systems” that prevent leaders from connecting the dots across sectors and getting a full and accurate picture of the state’s career pathways landscape. Without program quality and longitudinal outcome data, it’s difficult to know whether students who earn credentials succeed in securing a job in their field of study, and what kind of wages those jobs pay. And while the impact on students is obviously the most important missing data piece, it’s also crucial to know which pathways have the best return on investment. To take its CTE sector to the next level, Ohio must invest in a robust data system than can help answer questions like these.
Over the last year, Ohio’s career pathways programs have been the subject of plenty of research and analysis. Rightfully so, as these programs give Ohioans the opportunity to earn credentials and access well-paying jobs in growing industries. Bellwether’s latest report finds plenty of strengths in the Buckeye State, including state-level efforts to foster partnerships and capitalize on bipartisan support. But Bellwether also identified some opportunities for growth, namely the urgent need for better data on longer-term outcomes. Overall, Ohio has a lot to be proud of—but there’s also plenty of work left to be done.