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Va. career pathways system offers strategy for success

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Commentary

The experience of Virginia’s efforts in creating a career pathways framework offers some valuable insights to other community college systems trying to align with workforce development policies and programs.

For example, it’s important to gain top-level support and engage an outside facilitator to get the process started. Those and other best practices gleaned from Virginia’s initiative are outlined in the new report, Taking Root: The Virginia Career Pathways System, from the Workforce Strategy Center.

Virginia began its process in 2008 with a strategic plan approved by a multi-agency Governor’s Task Force on Career Pathways System Development. The task force included representatives from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), governor’s office, Department of Labor and Industry, State Council of Higher Education, Virginia Department of Education, and Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

Best Practices

Taking Root offers the following lessons learned from Virginia’s efforts to build a statewide career pathways system:

•    Create a statewide planning structure that balances agency authority with operational capacity. To ensure continuity, task force membership should comprise career positions rather than political appointees, and they must be empowered to make decisions for their agency.

Continuing support from the governor’s office is crucial, the report states. While the initiative was started under the leadership of Gov. Tim Kaine, it was continued by Gov. Bob McDonnell. Industry groups and business leaders need to be involved at the state and regional levels, and each participating agency needs to make a budgetary commitment to the initiative.

•    Career pathways planning and implementation takes time and effort. Engaging an outside entity to facilitate the process was important in preventing the initiative from being seen as the product of any one state agency. But once the project took hold, it was crucial to transition effectively to state leadership.

•    Effective communication is the key to success. It is important to have  a strong “elevator speech” that articulates a complicated process so all stakeholders can understand. The need for statewide requirements and oversight in pilot projects needs to be balanced by the need for flexibility at the local level, the report says.

Also, to ensure buy-in from regional stakeholders, state planners should involve them early in the process. Finally, sharing the results with other states, federal agencies and foundations has generated sustained interest and attracted additional funding.

Pilot projects

In 2010, VCCS received $300,000 from the Ford Foundation on behalf of the working group to begin a regional roll-out of its career pathways strategic plan. The system used the funds to support three regionally based operational frameworks to develop or improve career pathway systems:

•    The Peninsula Council for Workforce Development and Thomas Nelson Community College created a regional strategic plan for career pathways in advanced and precision technologies in manufacturing. They also produced a comprehensive set of workforce competencies needed to fill more than 11,000 projected job openings among the area’s 14 major manufacturing companies. The project included a website to help residents find jobs and training programs.

•    Southside Virginia Community College developed a career advancement program for adult learners and developed a handbook for career coaches.

•    Southwest Virginia Community College created a career pathway system for energy occupations and established connections with employers.

Members of the task force found the career pathways initiative contributed to a better working relationship. Before, they “focused on the day-to-day,” unaware of how the resources of one agency affected the others, according to the report. After participating on the task force, “agencies are much more inclined to see their work on education and workforce development as a piece of a larger whole.”

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