March 7, 20241:22 am

Taking Stock of Our National Pathways Infrastructure

Author: Rich Portelance

This week (March 3-5, 2024) was the Educating for Careers Conference, curated by the California ACTE (Association for Career and Technical Education) and California Partnership Academies. Nationally, the need for the creation of educational resources, guidance, and pathways to high quality careers has been gaining more attention, but only because the cost of college has become so egregious and out of reach for so many, that policy makers are finally taking notice. Of course the COVID pandemic threw gas on the proverbial fire, as more and more graduating high school students began to choose alternate pathways to employment. 

The Higher Education Act:

In his book Apprentice Nation, author Ryan Craig discusses how we were once a nation of apprenticeships (think George Washington and Paul Revere) which slowly began to introduce higher education as a way for the merchant elite to distinguish themselves. The tide fully turned in the 1960’s with the Higher Education Act which put into law provisions for financial assistance to students and to strengthen the educational resource of the colleges and universities of the United States. Craig states “The ethos of college — equipping young people to fulfill their potential in whatever direction it may take them — is the ethos of America.” He goes on to say how the tide is turning again, and the country has fallen far behind other industrialized nations in the development of robust apprenticeship programs. Far too many students are being left behind, and too many well paying, high quality jobs are going unfilled. Craig offers solutions for addressing these problems, which includes the development of robust pathways programming and a national apprenticeship system. 

One of the keystones of Craig’s augment is the lack of Federal Funding and leadership, with the little money that is trickling into the existing programs often being spent in the wrong places. Having been in the pathfinding space for the past 12+ years, I wholeheartedly agree with Craig’s assessment. 

Building Pathway Programs:

What was clear from the Educating for Careers Conference was that there are legions of dedicated individuals and small teams out there doing yeoman’s work building pathway programs, helping our children find their way, and doggedly staying as current as humanly possible on all the new career clusters, jobs, technologies and industries that are cropping up like daisies after a springtime shower. If you’re a guidance counselor today — you have to familiarize yourself with careers in AI, Cybersecurity, Green Energy, Transportation, and a plethora of new Healthcare jobs — just to name a few. There are so many great new high paying jobs available that don’t require a college degree, that these overworked souls are finding it difficult to keep pace with change. To top it off, they are not given the tools and support to enable enough advancement to keep pace with the rate of change.

Advancement with Little Funding:

Unlike the many higher education and EdTech conferences I’ve attended with fancy graphics & logos, clear leadership organizations, and the extra ‘bells and whistles’ that add to their cache, this conference was bare bones in comparison — a meat and potatoes event as they say. There were hundreds of great speakers and sessions, a solid hall of vendors ready to service the market, but little else. I don’t say this to disparage the organizers, but rather make an example of the fact that there is so little funding and leadership from a national level, that any advancement of the work being done in this space is possible through the sheer will of those involved, and little else. 

I was blown away by the dedication and passion of the attendees — all searching for better ways to guide their charges in the exploration of careers of meaning. They are truly heroes without capes, mild-mannered citizens dedicating their lives in the service of others. 

Just like President Johnson’s Higher Education Act did in 1965, it’s time that our current administration establishes programmatic leadership and funding for the development of a robust pathways program, including apprenticeships. The United States has fallen behind countries like Germany, Great Britain and Australia who have funded, developed and maintained pathways to solid middle class jobs, far outpacing the United States. While access to college remains important for many students, pathways to non-college careers today require skill-based training and systematic change — not college debt. I say let’s support our friends in guidance and pathway management programs, and those students looking for career options that may not require a 4-year degree. There is plenty of financial incentive to do so, as the painful college debt epidemic and >700,000 open cybersecurity positions will attest. 

Final Thoughts:

A big thank you to the wonderful people I met at the 2024 Educating for Careers Conference who dedicate their time, talents and treasures to our nation’s youth. It is my mission to support your work through the development of world-class pathway tools, and advocacy to our elected officials who have the power to affect change on a national scale, which is sorely needed today more than ever.