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What Will It Take to Unlock Pathways? JFF Partners with the Biden-Harris Administration to Find Out

October 18, 2023

At a Glance

The Unlocking Pathways Summit series spurred collaboration by state leadership teams from across the country to support young people in achieving career success

Charlotte Cahill Associate Vice President
Kyle Hartung Associate Vice President
Practices & Centers

We know we need to do more—faster and more collaboratively—to support young people in getting the education and training they need to secure and advance in quality jobs. By 2031, good jobs that are accessible to those with only a high school education will represent just 5% of all jobs, while 70% of jobs will require postsecondary education. Yet fewer than half of all young people in the United States have the postsecondary education needed to succeed in our economy, and we are confronting significant inequities in educational outcomes. Challenges in securing good jobs are especially acute for young people—especially women—of color: 62% of young white men and 50% of young white women in the United States have good jobs, as compared to 39% and 32% of young Black men and women, and 36% and 29% of young Latine men and women.

Career-connected pathways are a proven strategy for addressing this problem and have consistently represented perhaps the most promising and bipartisan agenda in education. Congress has recently appropriated billions of dollars, including through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, that can accelerate and deepen our collective pathways work. We have a historic opportunity to re-envision and redesign our education and workforce development systems to support our students; to invest in cross-sector collaboration; and ultimately to prepare the workforce needed to meet economic, sustainability, and national security imperatives.

This summer and fall, over 500 leaders from 42 states; Jobs for the Future (JFF); and the U.S. Departments of Education, Commerce, Energy, Labor, and Transportation came together to make the most of this opportunity and accelerate our collective efforts to prepare young people for good jobs. To catalyze state leadership on this agenda, JFF and the U.S. Department of Education co-hosted a series of four Unlocking Pathways Summits that convened cross-sector state pathways leadership teams, assembled by their governors’ offices, to chart the next generation of pathways work across states—and to consider how new federal investments can support state-level efforts to scale and sustain pathways into good jobs in transportation and infrastructure, clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and tech and cybersecurity.

The Summits highlighted an exciting new initiative, Unlocking Career Success, recently launched by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE). With its focus on four “keys” to unlock career success—dual enrollment, work-based learning, workforce credentials, and career advising and navigation—Unlocking Career Success is closely aligned to JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity framework. Summit attendees heard from national education leaders, such as Jill Biden; U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona; Senator John Hickenlooper; and Governors Tony Evers of Wisconsin, Jay Inslee of Washington, Jared Polis of Colorado, and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, about federal and state initiatives, including the Career-Connected High School Grant program, that support the goals of Unlocking Career Success. In addition, JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity team led in-depth sessions—based on our learning from a decade of work with state leaders—that highlighted national best practices and exemplars for each of the Unlocking Career Success keys and the cross-sector pathways partnerships needed to support them. Additional sessions deepened participants’ understanding of the landscape of federal policy investments, P-20 data systems, and Perkins and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) plans. Each Summit also featured a regional exemplar and an industry panel discussion highlighting the work and innovations of pathways partnerships in a key industry highlighted at each Summit.

Although the Unlocking Pathways Summit series has ended, we believe that the Summits were only the beginning of a national conversation. As we reflect on what we heard and learned during the Summits, we have identified three key takeaways that might serve as starting points for that conversation:

  1. More than a decade after it began, the national pathways movement continues to gain momentum and attract new, energetic cross-sector leaders. The Summits were an opportunity to engage new voices and perspectives in the national conversation about pathways. The states represented at the Summits are in varied places in their pathways work, but all brought committed leaders who contributed to the conversation. National pathways initiatives too often focus on the same small group of states and include too few perspectives. In doing so, we miss the opportunity to learn from emerging leaders and diverse viewpoints across industries and the country. New federal investments in pathways and workforce development that support initiatives—spanning the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Labor, and Transportation—are bringing renewed attention to pathways. We need to continue to build a coalition of leaders across the country who are working to support young people, communities, and economies.


  1. Postsecondary leaders have a much bigger role to play in building pathways that connect high school, college, and good jobs. The host venues for the Summits were community colleges that are national pathways leaders: the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, Madison College in Wisconsin, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Mississippi, and Renton Technical College in Washington. We heard from the presidents of and students at all four colleges about how they are implementing innovative strategies and systematic approaches to career-focused programming that yield more equitable educational outcomes and career success for students. We could not have asked for better hosts and partners for the Summits. The commitment of college leaders and their teams to this work was clear. Community colleges have long had strong relationships with both K–12 and industry leaders, and their partnership will be essential as we seek to systematically blur the lines between high school, college, and careers.


  1. We have been missing the mark by not bringing state leaders from beyond the education and workforce development systems into our pathways efforts. The Summits brought together longtime pathways leaders—including those from the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor and state K–12, higher education, and workforce systems—with leaders from federal and state agencies that have not often been at the table, such as federal and state departments of transportation and energy. We learned that leaders in these agencies are deeply committed to building the future workforce in their sectors, eager to learn from education and workforce leaders about proven strategies for doing so, and well-positioned to make critical contributions to the next generation of pathways work. These agencies can and should be central actors in the pathways ecosystem who collaborate with education and workforce leaders to braid strategies and funding streams, including recent federal investments, that support the expansion of pathways. Such a coordinated approach would not only provide access to new ideas and funding streams but also support better connections to employers at scale. Agencies such as federal and state departments of transportation and energy are themselves major employers that are committed to equity and quality jobs—and they have strong relationships with private sector employers that could be harnessed to support pathways design and implementation.

We invite you to join us as we put what we learned at the Summits into practice and build a broad national coalition to meet this moment.