March 15, 2021

Creating Clearer Pathways from Education to Good Jobs

Can U.S. states do a better job at offering young people paths to promising careers? MIT Sloan doctoral student Jenna E. Myers shares insights from her research related to that topic.

Photo by Tai's Captures on Unsplash

In the United States, many workers are stuck in low-wage jobs, without obvious pathways to reach better-paying careers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Jenna E. Myers, who is in the final year of the PhD program at the MIT Sloan School of Management and will be joining the faculty of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Human Resources and Industrial Relations this summer, studied efforts by U.S. states to create greater collaboration between educators and employers to prepare students for good careers—and found some promising developments.

Myers conducted this research with MIT Sloan School Professor Kate Kellogg, and their findings were recently published in the journal ILR Review. Myers spoke with Martha E. Mangelsdorf, Director of Strategic Communications for the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan and the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER), about this research. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Mangelsdorf: You've conducted research on how U.S. states facilitate coordination of workforce development—in the context of a program called the Pathways to Prosperity Network, through which a number of states are trying to prepare more young people for good jobs. Tell us a little bit about how your research evolved.

Myers: I was interested in doing research into organizations that were trying to create change in the U.S. education system; I have a background in teaching myself and saw how difficult the system is to change. I was connected to Jobs for the Future (JFF), which is a nonprofit education and workforce development organization that started and leads the Pathways to Prosperity Network. It is an initiative that involves a network of states working to align their high schools and colleges to provide young people with a more seamless transition into the workforce. The aim is to develop a population prepared for occupations that are both high-growth and pay a living wage.

The people at JFF were willing to let me observe their work with Pathways to Prosperity. They saw states as a key lever for change in part because policy making and funding for education is largely at the state level. But I did observations for months at a number of levels, both at the state level, at the national level, and then at the level of localities and regions within states. And it really did seem that states were doing something interesting that workforce development leaders hadn't seen before. Through Pathways to Prosperity, we saw a new level of collaboration across dozens of different state agencies—including education, labor, and economic development.  We saw states using the different tools at their disposal—state regulation, budgets, and in some cases, legislation—to develop a coordinated approach alongside local leaders that could be used across different regions within the states.

So states participating in Pathways to Prosperity are trying to both identify the kinds of good jobs available in their state and then develop pathways that start in high school to help young people get into those jobs. Is that right?


Jenna E. Myers

Myers: That's right. For example, high school students might take a couple of courses that gradually become more difficult in an industry like health care. So they'll learn about OSHA, they'll learn about HIPAA, and they'll have internships and job shadow experiences while they're in high school. Then they'll be given information about the types of programs that exist in community colleges and in universities in their area to continue their education if they want to.

You mentioned that you saw states doing something new here in terms of orchestrating and coordinating collaboration among different stakeholders. Was that surprising to you?

Myers: Yes. A lot of the research that I had read was focused on policy evaluation—on a particular policy effort and whether or not that effort was implemented successfully—or on different practices and approaches at the local organizational level. But I hadn't really seen much on states acting like large organizations and not just using their policy arm, but a number of different approaches to coordinate the work of many different stakeholders at the regional level.

One of the things that you found in this research is that states took different approaches to orchestrating the changes they wanted to see. Tell us a little bit about that.

Myers: After we developed our findings about the general importance of the states’ role in these efforts, we secondarily found that the specific strategies that a state can use depend on its governance structures for education and workforce development. In our paper, we classified states along a number of different indicators and found that there was a distinct difference according to the level of centralization.

What does that difference in centralization look like in practice?

Myers: Take Illinois and Tennessee, two of the states we studied. Illinois is an example of a decentralized approach to education and workforce development, and Tennessee is an example of a centralized one. We found that in a centralized state like Tennessee, the state agencies involved in coordinating career pathways and workforce development activity could take a stronger hand in steering individual schools and districts to improve the quality of their vocational education programs using this unified approach. These states could ensure that individual districts' programs were based on local labor market information, for example, or ensure that there were multiple levels of courses offered within the same pathway, rather than just one-off courses.

What were the differences in workforce development strategy for a state that's more centralized versus one that's more decentralized?

Myers: For a state that's more centralized, the general process would involve developing a common framework for different stakeholders to use, with input from those different stakeholders; then helping those stakeholders implement it; and then learn from their experiences to tweak the common framework. For a decentralized state, it looks much more like states developing a set of guidelines that they would then try to incentivize school districts to take on, for instance by involving them in programs that offered funding or recognition. It was a little more voluntary in the decentralized states.

The strategy in decentralized states sounds almost similar to the way that a foundation incentivizes nonprofits to do something—by saying, in effect, “We've got funding for this if you want to do it.”

Myers: Exactly.

You conclude in your paper that there are pros and cons to both the centralized and decentralized approaches. Can you say a little bit about that?

Myers: For decentralized states, the pro was that they're bringing along the regional stakeholders that are most interested in using the state's approach, but it can create a little bit slower growth for the initiatives. So the decentralized states took a bit longer to get going and their career pathways efforts didn't scale as widely across the state by the time that we completed our fieldwork. Centralized states can scale much faster, but they're in a bit of danger of having a more inflexible strategy. If there's a big change in the governance of the state—say, a new governor comes in—it might be more difficult for those efforts to continue at the state level. So there's a continuity question.

Overall, what would you say are some of the important practical implications of this research?

Myers: In this work, it was important for states to be flexible and engage with whatever organization in a particular locality was the strongest and that had the best reputation in the community. For example, many localities found that there was more interest and energy and trust from a community college system or a regional chamber of commerce than there was from the public workforce system, so that was the organization that partnered with the state and took on these efforts in a particular region. It was also important for states to consider the long term. These weren't simply grant funding efforts for the most part; they were instead efforts to change how educators and employers worked with one another.

It's an optimistic story in that there's a lot that states can do without massively increasing their budgets. And that might even be a better approach than just throwing money at the problem.

That is a really interesting point. It sounds like you're saying that what you observed states in the Pathways to Prosperity Network doing was more about changing collaboration patterns than about spending a lot more money. Is that accurate?

Myers: Yes. The state agencies who were leading these efforts certainly sought to have their budgets increased in money dedicated to these efforts, but many of them did quite a lot with regulatory changes and by developing different communication structures with regions. Some of them used comparatively paltry amounts—just a couple of million dollars across the state—for years’ worth of efforts.

Or they just redirected some of the workforce development money that was coming in and tried to use it more effectively. Essentially, many of them weren’t relying on new money.

Are there particular examples of efforts that you saw in the course of doing this research that you thought showed particular promise?

Myers: There were a couple of regions in Tennessee—Rutherford County and the Upper Cumberland region —that I followed very closely and that made some great strides in ensuring that the majority of their high school students were entered into a career pathway and in continuing to expand the number of employers that were involved with these programs. They also expanded their work to adult and dislocated workers as well. The coordination structures that they had put in place allowed them to tackle those efforts in addition to ones that were focused on youth.

You start off your paper by mentioning the well-known and very established pathways into the workforce, through programs such as apprenticeships, that exist in countries like Switzerland and Germany and how the U.S. has lacked such a structured and coherent approach to vocational education. After having done research on the Pathways to Prosperity Network, what do you think about the prospects for improving the school-to-work pathways in the United States?

Myers: We were really excited by our findings: We considered the states we studied to be successful in their approaches regardless of how they varied. So in general it's an optimistic story, but there certainly were a lot of barriers and years’ worth of work put into this, with a long way to go.

This article is part of our “Work in Progress” interview series, which highlights recent and in-progress work by researchers associated with the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan or the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Read the "Work in Progress" series.


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