Leading experts weigh in on current policy issues and challenges

Helping People Advance Beyond an Entry-Level Job

Career pathways—a model that supports postsecondary and job advancement to improve career opportunities for adults and youth—helps people get the training they need to find and keep good jobs and helps employers meet their needs for skilled workers. Evidence shows career pathways help people succeed in an initial step on a career pathway but they typically lead to entry-level jobs, often at lower wages that may not support a family. To fulfill the promise of career pathways, we need to help people advance beyond the initial step.

How can policy—within government, institutions, organizations, and industry—better support career advancement?

The Urban Institute is talking with...
Sam Berndt Sam Berndt
Scott Cheney Scott Cheney
Jaime Fall Jaime Fall
Dawn Medley Dawn Medley
Judy Mortrude Judy Mortrude
Jennie Sparandara Jennie Sparandara
Lauren Eyster
Moderated by:
Lauren Eyster
Senior Fellow, Income and Benefits Policy Center

Welcome to our Policy Debate on how policy can better support career advancement beyond an entry-level job. Many thanks to our experts participating in the debate. All joined us for an expert roundtable on October 11 and contributed to a lively discussion that we want to bring to a wider audience through this online debate.

In today’s economy and beyond, Americans with little to no postsecondary education and training may languish in low-skill, low-wage jobs with few options to advance to higher-paying, more-secure jobs. With the current tight labor market in the US, employers need talented workers to help growth their businesses. Career pathways, a model that supports postsecondary and job advancement to improve career opportunities for adults and youth, is designed to bridge this gap—helping people get the training they need to find good jobs and helping employers meet their needs for skilled workers. However, career pathways programming and resources are often focused on the initial steps of a career pathway, which typically lead to entry-level jobs, often with low wages.

Current federal laws—both the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 and the reauthorized Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006—encourage career pathways as an important strategy for building American workers’ skills. Federal student financial aid programs such as Pell grants can also support postsecondary and career advancement. States and postsecondary institutions are also creating policies to support advancement such as scholarships, transfer and articulation agreements, debt forgiveness, credit for prior learning, and college and career navigation services.

But, with all this policy activity, it is not clear the degree to which these policies support career advancement, especially for students not following the traditional path from high school to a four-year institution.

To get the debate started, let’s focus first on big “P” policy—legislation, regulation, government-sponsored programs, etc. So, what could government – federal, state, and local – do to better support advancement beyond an entry-level job?

One of the most glaring shortcomings in the workforce and education marketplace today is the lack of clear, comprehensive and comparable information across the wide range of potential pathways in front of students, veterans, incumbent workers, and returning workers.  There are hundreds and thousands of credentials in the United States alone.  Yet until the Credential Transparency Initiative began its work, and then Credential Engine was established, it was impossible to search, discover, and compare credentials and pathways across different types and providers of those credentials.  So for a student or workers who wants to enter or advance a career in IT, there had been no way to map your pathway cleanly and with rich information across bootcamps, apprenticeships, short-term certificates, industry certifications, two-year degrees, or more intensive education.  No wonder it's been hard for  so many individuals to plan out clear and successful next steps on their journey.

Credential Engine is working to solve that data and information challenge by providing a common schema for the description of all credentials to support search and comparisons.  Imagine an "expedia" for credentials and pathways.  Or, better, dozens of such tools and services, which also tap into job data, wage and employment data, financial aid information, and perhaps even support services such as transportation, dependent care, etc.

Open and transparent data is an essential piece of improving pathways.  It's not the only part of a solution, but it is something that federal programs, states, higher education systems, licensing bodies, certification providers, and others can adopt and act on today.  Every step is important, and this one is easy. 

Many opportunities exist for policy expansion and coordination in the span of workforce development and education.  We have a outdated system that does a poor job of preparing graduates to be lifelong learners with critical skills that employers want and need.  The students graduating college today will likely retire from careers that we have not envisioned.  New systems and governmental supports for education need to be put into place.  To start, early childhood education is a huge predictor of academic success.  We need to fund education not on property taxes which is a systemized where poor neighborhoods receive less funding but all schools and all children should be funded and supported nationally for education.  Also, aid programs for college students haven't kept pace with the changing needs of students.  What if graduated grant funding was available perhaps with employer support or matching to encourage adults to continue working on skill and knowledge sets.  Finally, more pipeline educational programs need to created through civic, government, education and community partners so that everyone is moving in the same direction to lift students closer to degree or post secondary certificates.  

Adult career pathway investments of the early 2000s were never meant to just produce nursing assistants for long term care facilities (though as I watched these professionals care for my dying father last year, I could think of no more important and difficult job).  In many places, career pathway investments like HPOG and TAACCCT only helped people get as far as the first credential before the federal funds ran out and local attention went back to “regular” work.  Only by utilizing on-going federal education and workforce investments – through WIOA, Perkins V, and HEA – can we build sustainable, community driven pathways for individuals with barriers to employment.

Louis Soare’s 2009 Working Learners report created a vision of a “wellness” model of workforce development to support people with coaching and education as they link jobs to create careers. Since 2009, we have created the federal laws that can guide these investments to promote career advancement and EQUITY – education and employment equity — focused on specific strategies for specific populations. 

WIOA can be the workforce development ‘wellness system’ to move people from first credential attainment, entry level career positions to the next level and the next, but only if WIOA system leaders across all levels of government understand how to use the levers it provides (e.g. priority of service for public benefit recipients, individuals who have low income or are basic skills deficient; Integrated Education & Training models; interconnecting career & training services) and how to leverage the funding inside Perkins V and HEA to support it. 

Federal agencies can support full WIOA co-enrollment and the uptake of Ability to Benefit as  dual enrollment for adult learners; states can take a hard look at their WIOA 2018 plan updates and then revisit their policies to support equity; locals can insist on a performance negotiation process featuring a statistical adjustment model for rewarding greater services to higher barriered populations (Section 677.210 Joint WIOA Final Rule). We have the vision; we now need the implementation.

Judy, thank you for this perspective! I agree that the vision for career pathways is in place but full implementation of the vision is needed to support career advancement. And that equity of opportunity is an important component. A shout out to Louis for developing a model that stands the test of time. 

Judy, Lauren, (and Louis) rightly point out that the challenge is partly policy constructs themselves, but also the lack of the system's leaders at all levels to understand how best to implement and carry-out policy options and levers.  When WIOA was reauthorized we specifically focused on removing as many barriers (real, perceived, and otherwise) to innovation, integration, and taking down artificial silos as we could.  But not enough has been done to support leaders in understanding all their options to create local solutions to meet regional economic and workforce needs.  The various federal departments can and should step up their commitment to professional development of their leaders of the system so workers and employers are able to realize the greatest returns on the systems we have, while we continue to debate how to continuously improve the underlying policies themselves.

While there are a broad range of policies at each level to better support career advancement, one simple step is incorporating a broader range of industry career pathways into existing workforce development funding programs.  So often the focus is on manufacturing, healthcare, or technology, that industries of significant and diverse career opportunities like retail are overlooked. Retailers are in every community and have almost every type of employment need – management, technology, distribution and logistics, store operations, etc. Broadening the focus to include a variety of in-demand occupations in retail will ensure more jobseekers and learners are equipped with the employability and technical skills necessary to advance and succeed in retail careers and beyond.

More often than not, the frontline retail employee you see every day isn’t there in a year not because they’ve switched to another to another entry-level job, but because they moved into a more senior role in the same store (for example, about a third of BJ’s Wholesale general managers started as hourly employees), or used the professional skills they gained in retail to grow elsewhere. 

The NRF Foundation offers more information and credentialing programs that demonstrate how to advance beyond an entry-level job.

Speaking of the employer role in all of this, I would just like to add, there is so much more employers can and should be doing to show leadership to ensure people get placed in quality jobs with advancement opportunities. Beginning with employers who serve on state and local workforce development boards, it would be interesting to see governors/local elected officials make it their policy to only appoint board members and make incumbent worker training funds available to employers who would commit to actions such as:

  • Reviewing and eliminating unnecessary job requirements which serve as barriers to employment
  • Sharing their real-time skill needs data
  • Creating personal development plans with each of their employees starting at hiring
  • Mapping and publicizing transparent career pathways information
  • Offering open access to tuition assistance programs that do not require out of pocket costs from the participants
  • Tying completion of programs to advancement opportunities
  • Sharing outcomes data from these practices with other employers

Absolutely, Jamie – it’s a two-way street between workforce development boards and employers.  Increasingly, whether due to the tightening labor market or other business reasons, employers are recognizing the value of non-traditional pathways and adjusting their recruiting and retention investments accordingly.  SHRM and the American Institutes of Research recently made some data available on this:

Although the findings demonstrate that there’s a lag between willingness to eliminate unnecessary job requirements, there’s also a lot of headway in this direction.  An example I like to point to in terms of employers moving beyond overly prescriptive job posting requirements is Greyston Bakery.  In addition to making brownies for Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked, they also have an innovative Open Hiring model.


Thanks to Judy and Sam for kicking the policy debate off yesterday! Judy made several important points about bringing a vision of a workforce development "wellness" model (and supported through federal legislation) to implementation to ensure people have the opportunity to advance in their careers. Sam noted that the retail sector is often overlooked when it comes to opportunities for advancement for workers and that employers like BJ's Warehouse help to create those opportunities. 


Today, we are going to focus on policies that encourage advancement through institutions of higher education and other education and training providers. In addition to legislation like WIOA and Perkins, this often includes little "P" policies (e.g., state board of regents guidance, institutional policies), designed to help students continue in a program of study to support advancement beyond an entry-level job. Some examples of these policies are credit for prior learning, co-enrollment in technical and adult education courses, transfer and articulation agreements, and debt forgiveness for students who did not complete their program. It can also mean development of competency frameworks and credentials that employers recognize and use for hiring. 


So, the question for our experts today is:  what policies could encourage higher education and other education and training providers to support career advancement?

California Community Colleges (CCC) is an example of a system that has been thinking outside their traditional academic frame to value 'skill building' adults.  In California’s definition, skills-builders are adults with foundational skills and work experience who take a limited number of community college courses to stave off skill loss and add to skill-sets required for ongoing employment and career advancement.  Instead of seeing these adults as non-completers, 

CCC has figured out how to value skill-builders in policy. Research has proven the economic impact of CTE course taking for adults with experience and foundational skills.  Van Ton Quinlivan, who led California’s reinvestment in CTE, discovered how to capture the impact of this skill building both to the individual and to the state economy.  This led to incredible state investment.  Now, how can this work translate to other states and to the federal investment?

With exponential technological change impacting nearly every industry, perhaps it’s time to think about a corollary to the Trade Adjustment Act program which retrained workers impacted by low cost overseas manufacturing.  Perhaps a Technological Impact Act – allowing workers to tap into resources for skill building to keep their skills honed and the prospects growing.

I love this point Judy, and it sounds like together we're looking at models like California's for insights into how leading edge educators can think and work differently to support skill building that leads to good jobs or economic mobility.

Like a number of other businesses, we're looking at how tools like the Higher Education Act can respond to the need built into this question - how can reauthorization of that policy support more collaboration and connection between employers and higher eduation institutions? In the communities JPMorgan is investing philanthropically (and hiring) we see over and over again the difference made when educational institutions have a diverse set of tools they can use to partner with employers- and to do so in a way that supports both educational and job outcomes for students.

And to connect the dots to yesterday's question - I'd love to see more collaborations that break down the silos that are created between industries. For example, we've seen how a number of skills cut across industry groups. Tech skills are a clear example - retailers, financial institutions, and tech companies are all looking for great tech talent. We've seen some promising examples through our work with the Business Roundtable and their Workforce Partnership Initiative. Check out the Chicago Apprenticeship Network and Greater Washington Partnership's Capital CoLAB for just 2 examples.


Love your mention of silos across industry as we all know those exist in education as well.  Today was a great day professionally for me because I sat in a room with a community college team, two community based non-profits, our mayor's office, our chamber  of commerce team and we rolled up our sleeves and got real about how we are going to transform educational opportunities in the Detroit region.  We have some exciting corporate partners who are looking to assist and we're talking about education for all levels of attainment.  Silos don't work well for anything except storing farm products and they have no place in workforce development or higher education.  Instead we're looking at on-ramps and pipelines to meet students where they are and take them to the next level and beyond with a network of committed organizations from all different sectors.  



Continuing to develop and expand successful partnerships between higher education/training providers and industry could go a long way towards promoting advancement along a career pathway.  This isn’t a new point (Jenny makes the same above), but one worth reiterating.  As more thought is put towards the coming (or continuing) impact automation and AI will have on jobs, asking the question of “are academic and training institutions preparing students for an evolving workplace” may mean looking to industry for a perspective.  In the same way that WIOA requires State Workforce Development Boards to be majority business representatives, maybe public universities or institutions should be encouraged to better incorporate business representatives to provide greater input into the employability of certain majors.  There was an interesting study from the labor market data firm Emsi (“Robot-Ready”) which came to a similar conclusion – that greater collaboration between education and employment is needed.  Primarily that there is a large demand for a liberal arts background that is complemented with technical or analytical skills.  However, that may be missing from many educational institutions.

Likewise, policies that provide more data to students and require greater transparency about job prospects in local labor markets would continue to be helpful.  Providing better information around programs, the skills gained, and what wages or employment prospects those skills open up, would help students make sound investments in their education.  Better access to labor market information would also encourage students to consider a broader range of careers.  For example, longitudinal wage data provided by Mercer (shown below) demonstrates that retail wages have matched or exceeded peer industries and see significant wage gains with time.   For more information, click here.


One area that shows a lot of promise is the work NC3 (National Coalition of Certification Centers) is doing with community colleges to imbed industry recognized credentials within curiculum.  NC3 is a network of education providers and corporations that "supports, advances and validates" new and emerging technology skills in industries such as transportation, aviation, manufacturing and energy. They create strong industry partnerships with educational institutions in order to develop, implement and sustain industry-recognized portable certifications that have strong validation and assessment standards. Students get the knowledge and skills they need to complete the programs as well as acquire professional certifications.  They are now working with over 100 colleges as well as a number of technical high schools throughout the U.S. 

Love this question and the folks who are willing to take a chance.  Many adults are locked out of education and career advancement because they are unable to continue work on a degree.  Perhaps they had to stop out because of a family emergency or some other issue and now own a bill to their institution.  As part of our work with the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, Macomb Community College and through the Lumina Talent Hub designation, Wayne State University has become a national model for debt forgiveness with many other folks jumping on the bandwagon and we are are excited to share the ride.  In the Detroit metro area, we have almost 700,000 adults with some college and no degree and many of them are low-income, first-generation and/or under-represented.  Many have a past due balance which locks them out of higher education because they can't go back to school without paying that bill and their transcript is held hostage until they pay what they owe.  By treating that debt as something we can set aside, we allow students to comeback to school through our Warrior Way Back program.  For each semester they successfully complete (full or part-time), we forgive one-third of that past due debt.  It's that simple.  It provides positive ROI for the institution in additional tuition revenue, students are thrilled as they get a second chance, and as an institution, we're given a chance to do it right for this student and provide the with many of the supports they didn't have the first time.  There really isn't a negative aspect and it is a great way to tap into a huge number of prospective students who already fell in love with our institution previously.  We're working on a plan (and other higher education partners) to make this regional in the metro area and I believe we have a solid foundation for a disruptive and successful national program.  

On this, I'm struck by the different conversations taking place in DC and elsewhere around the country.  The policy conversation in DC seems a bit (a lot?) stuck in silos and approaches rooted in past economic conditions, and there seems to be little openness to conversations around meaningful, real, and impactful supports for lifelong learning, whether that be financial, support systems, or otherwise.  Yet in conversations in and with states and around the country in general, there is a very clear appreciation for those very policy answers, and some real progress seems to be taking place.  Question--how do we bring this national policy and practice conversation to DC?

I am excited about the richness of the discussion from yesterday and the various threads -- breaking down "silos," encouraging partnerships between employers and higher ed/training providers, and developing efforts to support education/training completion and lifelong learning. The comments also brought together examples of this work happening across the country, with Scott pointing out the need to bring these examples and the progress across the country to DC and the national policy conversations. 

Today, we are going to focus some more on the intersection of these policy debates and the employer role in supporting career advancement. We know employers across the country are "upskilling" their current employees through apprenticeship, tuition assistance, and other training opportunities. They are also collaborating with local nonprofits, government, and higher education to provide advancement opportunities. But not all employers have the resources to engage in or see the value of these efforts. 

On our final day, the motivating question is: How can policy incentivize employers to invest in their employees to help them advance in their careers? 

I'm going to yield my space to this excerpt from Investing in Upskilling, a report from Canadian researchers on the impact of investing in frontline employees:

“In the world’s most advanced economies, differences in average literacy skill explains over 55% of differences in long term GDP and labour productivity growth rates and higher proportions of adults with Level 1 and 2 skills impair growth rates to a significant degree. Over a 50 year period these differences in growth rates translate into a difference of $11,000 more GDP per capita between the best and worst performing economy (Coulombe, Tremblay and Marchand, 2004)…

These findings provide a clear rationale for finding ways to drive up average literacy scores. More interestingly, the proportion of adults with Level 1 and 2 skills also influences economic growth over the long term. Higher proportions of low-skilled adults translate into lower overall rates of productivity growth. This finding implies that raising average skill levels by improving the scores of the lower skilled will drive rapid improvement in economic performance.” (emphasis mine!)

Currently many economic development organizations work to bring new industry to metro areas but do less to retain those industries or support them in developing a work force.  In Detroit, we are fortunate to walk side by side with our Detroit Chamber and see them as a true partner.  The opportunity exists for the same tax incentives to support employers who are providing opportunities for tuition reimbursement, certificate attainment, or skills building educational programs.  We need to support growth.  This should be more valuable to an area as you are growing your own workforce while supporting industry in your backyard.  Cities have already invested and connected to the businesses and we owe it to them to provide incentives while they try and support their workers and grow their businesses.  Sometimes we only provide those opportunities when attracting a company or we only provide that support to workers after the company has already pulled up stakes.  By opening up discussions and supporting employers providing growth to their employees, we can sustain and strengthen the educational trajectory of many adults while building our local economies and our work force.  

We are bringing our policy debate to a close. Thanks to the experts who posted such thoughtful comments throughout the three-day debate about how policy can better support career advancement. Some of the key ideas offered by our experts include:

  • Ensuring the availability of data on credentials and job prospects in labor markets by government, education systems, and credentialing bodies to help people make choices that support their advancement
  • Reforming systems to support lifelong learning
  • Compelling policymakers across all levels of government to use the policy levers embedded in WIOA and other federal programs to help us go from vision to implementation of a workforce development “wellness” system
  • Incorporating a broader range of industry career pathways into existing workforce development programs
  • Creating incentives for employers to commit to a series of practices that make it more feasible for their employees to advance in their careers, starting with employers serving on local and state workforce development boards
  • Convincing policymakers to invest in career and technical education by capturing the impact of skill building to the individual and the economy
  • Ensuring that educational institutions have a diverse set of tools to help them partner with employers to support education and job outcomes for students
  • Encouraging collaboration across educational institutions, employers, and government to help former college students who have debt or other barriers re-enroll and complete their degree or other credential
  • Developing avenues for employers to help improve their employee’s skills and literacy, especially among frontline workers, that can translate to better economic performance

This set of ideas is an excellent jumping-off point for those seeking to develop and influence policy that supports career advancement for American workers. The examples provided throughout the debate also offer more detailed insights into actions policymakers, practitioners, and funders can take. Please also see Urban’s factsheet on how policy can better support career advancement.

And thanks again to our experts who so actively contributing to the debate and to Urban’s Nicole Levins for helping to plan and coordinate the debate. We look forward to continuing the conversation in the future.