Twenty-year-old Emily* was living in South Carolina and enrolled at Florence-Darlington Technical College, pursuing a degree in nursing. Her future looked promising, but in her first year she had to drop out, struggling to make ends meet.
It was shortly thereafter that a counselor connected her with South Carolina’s Project HOPE (Health Occupations Preparation for Employment) — a career pathways program that helps low-income young people find and retain high-demand health care jobs.
Project HOPE contacted the technical college directly, helped Emily re-enroll into the nursing program and offered her support services to help complete her degree. Emily was driven to succeed but needed support to realize her dream, said Gilda Kennedy, Project HOPE program director. “Project HOPE was not about paying Emily’s tuition; it was about people who cared for and encouraged Emily through some difficult times, renewing her drive and attitude.” In May, Emily will graduate with her registered nursing degree, one step closer to self-sufficiency and a long-term career in the health profession.
Ages 16 to 24 — when young people are supposedly transitioning to adulthood — is critical to future employment success. Young people in this age range who are disconnected from school or the work force may face significant barriers to sustained employment, such as limited work experience or training, poor health, poverty or disability. It is estimated that a young adult who is disconnected from employment and education costs taxpayers $13,900 per year, and the social system burden can be upwards of $37,450 per year.
Career pathways programs that target transitioning young people show promising results in helping them reconnect to work and education, helping them get more than just jobs, family- and life-supporting careers. Like Project HOPE, these programs align training and education with local labor market demand. They provide training, work experience and face time with potential employers, as well as case management and mentoring.
Project HOPE includes a five-phase approach where participants work closely with staff who provide a range of supportive services through case management and a four-week “boot camp” that includes intensive academic and hands-on training. The mandatory boot camp is designed to introduce participants to college expectations as well as potential coursework and employment in the health field. Kennedy credits the mentoring component of the program and the close relationships forged between staff and participants for its successes in moving participants from school to careers.
Some career pathway programs also offer relationship skill building in addition to labor market training to fully engage young participants. The Dibble Institute, a national nonprofit organization in partnership with the Century Center for Economic Opportunity YouthBuild (CCEO YB), integrates a life skill curriculum called Love Notes with intensive employment-based career pathway training. Through the Love Notes curriculum, young people are able to make wise relationship and romantic choices that can help them achieve their education, employment, relationship and family goals.
“The approach is based on the theory that if you teach young people relationship skills around their intimate lives, then those skills translate into job skills and employment,” said Kay Reed, executive director of the Dibble Institute. The curriculum, created by Dibble, is often combined with a life-skills class that addresses leadership, soft skills for job training and financial literacy. Dibble has found the integrated approach helps participants build foundational communication and conflict-resolution skills that translate in their personal lives and in the job market.
The concept of career pathways has received increased focus in the human service and work force development sectors. Many organizations, like Project HOPE and the Dibble Institute, have developed programs, as well as created toolkits and guides to help other organizations implement similar approaches. Many of these guides are housed in the U.S Department of Health and Human Services Office of Family Assistance’s Career Pathways: Catalog of Toolkits, which is a database searchable by industry or target population. It includes several tools for professionals working with young adults.
- A Green Career Pathways Framework: Postsecondary and Employment Success for Low-Income, Disconnected Youth from The Corps Network focuses on green, environmental sustainability jobs to engage and train young adults in the high-demand green labor market.
- Supporting the Education Pipeline: A Business Engagement Toolkit for Community-Based Organizations, from the Ready by 21 National Partnership, provides guidance to organizations serving young adults on engaging local employers and involving them in program efforts to improve outcomes for youth.
Career pathway programs create a pipeline to employment for young adults by providing support and case management that helps them enter, retain and advance into meaningful career pathways. With supportive services such as mentoring or relationship building, transitioning young people are offered a needed holistic approach to help them reconnect.
* Name changed.
Kristin Abner, Ph.D., is a manager at ICF International where she works on technical assistance and research projects relating to child poverty, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and work force programs. Christina Techico, M.A, is a principal at ICF International where she manages projects related to work force development, social service programs, youth development and education reform efforts, primarily for the U.S. departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services.