Career Pathway Programs: Helping Low-Income People Increase Skills and Access Good-Paying Jobs



Millions of adults lack the level of education and training needed to get jobs that pay well, provide benefits, and offer opportunities for advancement. Research shows that people with postsecondary education earn more over their lifetimes and have lower-than-average unemployment rates. 

Increasingly, more states and localities are implementing career pathways programs to help adults navigate a path to jobs that pay well in their communities. Career pathways programs aim to improve the education and earnings of low-skilled adults by providing well-articulated training steps tailored to the local job market and accompanied by guidance and other supports. Career pathways programs focus on promising approaches to basic skills instruction and occupational training that lead to credentials for in-demand jobs. The programs also emphasize assessment, academic and non-academic supports that adults need to complete their programs, and connections to employers.

The key components of a career pathways program include:

  • Series of clearly defined and connected levels of education that build upon one other and lead to successively higher credentials and employment opportunities in growing occupations.
  • Multiple entry and exit points.
  • Comprehensive and intensive interventions to address the learning and life challenges facing adults.
  • Strong connections to the local labor market and employer needs.

Career pathways programs involve a range of industries and target populations. The pathway steps and associated credentials vary widely, too. Initial steps may include basic skills and training from a 6th grade level to high school. The next steps provide training geared to jobs requiring some training and education, but less than a four-year degree, such as occupational certificates and associate degrees. Higher levels incorporate bachelor’s degrees and advanced credentials. The programs are designed so students can enter and exit at multiple points along the pathway. Programs also tailor interventions and services to meet the needs of the targeted populations.

Current Research and Evaluation

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has a number of ongoing evaluations to determine the effect of career pathway programs on participant educational attainment, employment, and earnings, especially for low-income individuals, including recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Information on the ACF portfolio of career pathways projects, including the ones profiled here, can be found online.   

The Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) Evaluation

The Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) evaluation is the first-ever randomized trial of career pathways programs, featuring nine of the country’s innovative programs operated by community colleges, community-based organizations, and workforce agencies in 18 sites across 12 states (see map). The PACE impact study is testing whether these nine programs improve educational attainment, employment, and earnings among individuals who were assigned at random to a group that could access the program compared to a group that could not. Abt Associates, in partnership with MEF Associates, is conducting the study. Findings on the impact of the nine programs will be available starting in mid-2016.

Map of states with PACE Sites

The nine programs in PACE are:

  • Carreras en Salud, Instituto del Progreso Latino (Chicago, Ill.): Launched in 2005, Carreras en Salud (Careers in Health) is a career pathway program in nursing occupations for low-skilled and limited English proficient Latinos that leads participants from a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) degree to Pre-Licensed Practitioner Nurse (LPN) to LPN and ultimately to Registered Nurse (RN). Instituto designed Carreras en Salud to address both the academic and nonacademic needs of low-skilled Latinos. The training program provides a pre-college contextualized curriculum that moves students along an academic, career, and social ladder towards higher paying jobs.
  • Workforce Training Academy Connect, Des Moines Area Community College (Des Moines, Iowa): DMACC’s Workforce Training Academy Connect (WTA Connect) program targets students with low skill levels who would not typically be eligible to enroll in vocational training certificate courses. The program aims to accelerate entry into vocational training by enabling students to pursue basic skills and occupational training simultaneously. The program packages vocational education in high-growth, high-demand sectors with basic skills remediation, psychosocial skills development, and advising, all at no cost to the participant. After completing the foundational components of the program, WTA Connect participants enroll in certificate courses in a variety of fields including health care and manufacturing.
  • Patient Care Pathway Program, Madison College (Madison, Wis.): Madison College’s Patient Care Pathway Program (PCPP) provides accelerated entry into college-level programs in health for those with skill levels too low to meet entry requirements. PCPP offers two tracks depending on the student’s skill level: Patient Care Academy 1 (PCA 1) for students interested in a one-year health care diploma program or with skills too low to enter Patient Care Academy 2 (PCA 2); and, PCA 2, which allows students to meet all the prerequisite requirements in math, chemistry and communications for the two-year health degree programs in one semester. Both Patient Care Academies integrate developmental coursework with health program prerequisites and contextualize the developmental courses for the health field. All PCPP participants take classes as a cohort and had access to a dedicated advisor.
  • Pathways to Healthcare Program, Pima Community College (Tucson, Ariz.): The Pathways to Healthcare Program trains low income Pima County residents, 18 years or older, for careers in high-demand healthcare fields. The program works closely with One Stop centers to recruit students, offering training in 16 different healthcare professions based on personal preference and test scores. The length of training can be as short as the five-week Nursing Assistant training, or up to two or three years for any of the associate degree programs (Clinical Research Coordinator, Health information Technology and Pharmacy Technology). Once enrolled in the Pathways program, students have access to a variety of supportive services including case management, remedial or developmental education if needed, a dedicated Pathways advisor, and a dedicated Pathways One-Stop Center case manager who works with them to find employment upon completion of training.
  • Bridge to Employment in the Health Care Industry, San Diego Workforce Partnership (San Diego, Calif.): The Bridge to Employment in the Health Care Industry program assists participants in selecting a healthcare training program, provides advising and support services, and teaches job readiness skills. Participants receive individual training accounts (ITAs) to help pay for training; program navigators arrange for other financial supports, including funding for uniforms, certification fees, transportation, and child care.
  • College Prep Academy, Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas): Serving four counties in southern Texas, Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA) funds training for people pursuing an occupational certificate or an Associate’s degree in allied health, manufacturing, information technology, business, education, and specialized trades. For those assessed with skills below college level, VIDA offers an accelerated bridge program, the College Prep Academy, to build reading and math skills. The program directly provides financial support to help cover needs like tuition gaps, childcare, transportation, licensing expenses, and financial emergencies. Weekly group or individual meetings with VIDA counselors aim to assist participants in addressing academic, personal, and professional issues.
  • Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program, Washington State Community and Technical College System (Across Washington State): The Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program operates in all 34 of Washington’s community and technical colleges. I-BEST is a multi-occupation program that concurrently provides basic skills or ESL instruction and job training in a range of credit-based, occupational training programs along with counseling and other supports. I-BEST provides contextualized classroom instruction with two instructors in specified classes -- one instructor for basic skills and one for occupational content. Students also receive academic advising, supplementary academic and non-academic skills instruction, and tuition assistance if existing financial aid is not adequate. Three colleges are participating in the PACE evaluation:
    • Bellingham Technical College (Bellingham, Wash.) : The I-BEST programs included in PACE are nursing assistant, automotive technology, welding, and electrical foundations. 
    • Everett Community College (Everett, Wash.): The I-BEST programs included in PACE are Nursing Assistant Certified (NAC), Sustainable Office Skills (SOS), and welding. 
    • Whatcom Community College (Bellingham, Wash.): One I-BEST program is included in PACE, clerical assistant.
  • Health Careers for All, Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County (Seattle, Wash.): The Health Careers for All program offers career exploration and planning, advising, and support services from navigators provided through a community-based organization. The program offers training at three levels—foundational, entry and advanced—providing multiple entry and exit points. Participants also receive job search assistance and continue to receive advising and support when they start working to assist with needs that arise and help determine future career options. Training is funded through ITAs, and WDC also directly purchases classes from colleges for cohorts of students.
  • Year Up (PACE sites are Atlanta, Bay Area (San Francisco and San Jose), Boston, Chicago, National Capital Region (Greater Washington, D.C.), New York City, Providence, and Puget Sound (Seattle)): This intensive, one-year program provides high school graduates and GED recipients between the ages of 18-24 with a combination of hands-on skill development and corporate internship opportunities. The first six months of the program focuses on technical and professional skill-building, while the second six months focuses on applying these skills through corporate internships. An onsite social worker helps students access supports like housing assistance, affordable dental/medical services, and child care. The program provides financial support, including weekly performance-based stipends of up to $260 throughout the year. Students can also earn college credits for their participation (typically a maximum of 18-23 credits). After graduation, students continue to receive support and build their professional networks through Year Up’s Alumni Association.

Additional PACE Resources 

Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) program

Authorized by the Affordable Care Act, the Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) program provides education, training, and supportive services to TANF recipients and other low-income individuals to help them get jobs in the healthcare field.  

In 2010, ACF awarded 32 five-year grants to government agencies, community-based organizations, post-secondary educational institutions, and tribal-affiliated organizations to conduct these activities in 23 states. HPOG aims to meet the dual policy goals of demonstrating new ways to increase the supply of healthcare workers while creating well-paid career opportunities for low-income, low-skilled adults. As of June 2015, nontribal grantees enrolled more than 37,000 people in 49 programs.

ACF is funding multiple studies to examine the HPOG Program, including ones focused on program performance reporting, implementation and effects:

  • HPOG Implementation, Systems, and Outcome (ISO) Evaluation Design and Performance Reporting. The HPOG ISO project has two parts. The first part developed an evaluation plan for HPOG and the second part built and maintains a management information system to track grantee progress for program management and accountability and to record participant data for use in the evaluation. This project produces the HPOG Annual Reports (see below).
  • HPOG National Implementation Evaluation (NIE). The NIE includes an in-depth examination of HPOG grantee program design and implementation, a systems analysis of networks created by HPOG programs (e.g., among grantees, employers, and other partners), and a quantitative descriptive analysis of HPOG program outputs and outcomes. All 27 nontribal grantees are included in this analysis.
  • HPOG Impact Study. The HPOG Impact study uses an experimental design to examine the effect of the HPOG program on participants’ educational and economic outcomes. This evaluation aims to identify which components of HPOG programs (e.g., types of support services, program structure, and training areas) contribute to participant success. The 20 grantees that are not part of the tribal evaluation, the University Partnership Research Grants, or the PACE evaluation are included in the HPOG Impact Study.
  • Evaluation of Tribal HPOG. A separate evaluation has been designed for the five tribal grantees, given the unique contexts in which these programs operate. This evaluation focuses on implementation and outcomes and will offer lessons about diverse programmatic approaches to health professions training programs serving tribal populations. 
The HPOG Year 4 Annual Report shows that through the end of the fourth year, in September 2014, the majority of HPOG participants were single moms whose incomes fell below $20,000 at the start of the program. Almost half of participants had incomes below $10,000. More than 80 percent participated in a healthcare training course, with one-third enrolling in courses for nursing assistant, aide, orderly or patient care attendant. Other common courses include training for licensed and vocational nurse, registered nurse, medical records and health information technician, and medical assistant. 
The Year 4 Annual Report also reveals that many participants experienced positive outcomes (future reports from the HPOG Impact study will analyze the extent to which HPOG caused those outcomes). Sixty-five percent of those who began a course of training completed with many others still engaged in coursework. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of those who completed a course and exited the HPOG program were employed after leaving the program. More than 60 percent were employed in the healthcare field upon program exit. Nearly all participants (96 percent) also received some form of academic or personal support including tuition assistance, child care or transportation assistance, or employment placement support.


Map showing states with HOPG programs

Additional HPOG Resources