Urban Wire Expanding opportunity through career pathways and training for middle-skill jobs
Pamela J. Loprest
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Throughout June, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity.

Work is critical to mobility out of poverty. People who work, even less than full-time, are far less likely to be poor than people who do not work. Work also helps people view themselves and be viewed by others as productive members of society. But for low-skill workers with a high school degree or less, low-wage work is not enough.

Full-time, full-year work at the minimum wage provides about $15,000 a year in earnings, higher than the federal poverty level for an individual, but difficult for a family to live on. Improving skills to attain “middle-skill jobs” that require training or education beyond high school but less than a four-year degree holds the promise of higher wages and a pathway out of poverty.

The workforce development system helps people gain job skills and employment. The most promising models currently being implemented are sectoral employment and career pathway strategies. Both approaches focus education and training efforts on jobs in growing employment sectors and support individuals on steps along a pathway. 

Sectoral employment programs provide occupational skill training in growing industries such as health care, involve industry representatives in designing programs, and provide connections to employers seeking workers in these industries. Evaluation of three sectoral employment training programs in Boston, New York City, and Wisconsin found they significantly increased employment and earnings for low-skill individuals—including welfare recipients, the justice-involved, and homeless people—in sectors such as construction, health care, manufacturing, and technology. The study also found that participants were more likely to work in higher-paying jobs with better benefits after completing the program.

The career pathway model adds to this focus the idea of helping workers advance over time, all the way from basic skills (if needed) to higher levels of education and employment. To help low-skilled poor individuals take advantage of skill-building opportunities, the career pathway approach includes several key elements:

  • Close connections between the basic math and reading upgrade some workers need and occupational skills training. Evaluations of promising instructional approaches, including programs to accelerate and integrate basic skills learning into occupational training, show success, and more evaluation is ongoing
  • Development of career ladders and multiple entry and exit points to advancement, with a focus on receiving industry-recognized credentials at each stage
  • Comprehensive support services, including career counseling, child care, and transportation
  • Flexibility in the way training is organized to allow individuals to continue working and earning money. For example, some programs offer shorter training “segments” that can be taken at different points or training provided at locations and times that meet workers’ needs

Public workforce development dollars through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act are increasingly being focused on these strategies. Additionally, several evaluations of programs using career pathways approaches are under way, including the Health Profession Opportunity Grants and the Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education.

Government support for upgrading skills is not new. However, these newer program models show promise in helping individuals escape poverty by making sure training is targeted, with a job at the other end, and comes with opportunities for low-skill workers to advance to higher-paying jobs.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Workforce development Wages and nonwage compensation Workers in low-wage jobs Job training Mobility Beyond high school: education and training
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center