What is Career Pathways?


Businesses in various industry sectors report difficulty finding highly skilled workers to meet the demand of today’s labor market. Many jobs remain unfilled because of the limited pool of skilled workers with the necessary training and credentials including licenses, degrees, and industry-recognized certificates. State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Agencies are in a good position to support individuals with disabilities attain the necessary skills and credentials to fill this unmet need. In accordance with federal law, VR services, “are available to assist the individual with a disability in preparing for, securing, retaining, advancing in or regaining an employment outcome that is consistent with the individual’s unique strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities, interests, and informed choice” (CFR 361.48 (b), p. 287).


The Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Strategy Group, and Advance CTE reported findings that post-secondary credentials are a requirement for career success (2018). Partnerships involving employment service providers, post secondary education providers and businesses are an increasingly common approach to filling the training gap. One strategy for assisting individuals with disabilities to acquire relevant skills is Career Pathways, a workforce development strategy that provides clear and specific strategies to raise jobseekers’ skill levels for career advancement. This approach, for example, offers individuals with disabilities opportunities to simultaneously participate in different combinations of training, education and work-based opportunities. Different agencies, including secondary schools, community colleges, employers, workforce and economic development groups, and social service providers work together to form pathways to enter and advance in various career fields.

An advantage of Career Pathways approaches is that in alignment with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), there is an integration of educational instruction, workforce development, and vocational supports that are linked to labor market trends and business needs leading to stackable credentials. WIOA defines Career Pathways as a combination of rigorous and high quality education, training, and other services that:

  • Align with the skill needs of industries in the regional economy involved;
  • Prepare an individual to be successful in a full range of secondary or postsecondary education options;
  • Includes counseling to support an individual in achieving their education and career goals;
  • Provide education and training to accelerate the individual’s educational and career advancement;
  • Includes education offered concurrently with workforce preparation activities and training for a specific occupational cluster;
  • Enables an individual to gain at least one recognized postsecondary credential;
  • Helps an individual enter or advance within a specific occupational cluster.

Career Pathways help VR meet business needs. 

Career pathways are designed to address the labor markets’ supply and demand needs. Many of the skills needed require formal training due to the nature of the work (i.e. licensure for state compliance, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and other credentialing requirements). Some sectors are growing exponentially which can create a deficit in the pool of qualified applicants for jobs requiring very specific skillsets. Career Pathways approaches are targeted strategies based on the labor market and therefore designed specifically to address gap for skilled workers by promoting and creating trainings that meet those demands.

In addition to recruitment, businesses also benefit from Career Pathways focus on retention and advancement. For example, if businesses that promote from within are able to retain their quality employees while also helping them progress in a viable career trajectory within the company. This reinforces loyalty and increased morale from their workforce. It also reduces the costs to businesses by reducing staff turnover, which alleviates HR related expenses.

Career Pathways help improve the employment landscape for individuals with disabilities.  

While getting a job is the first step in financial independence, in most cases those are entry-level jobs at minimum wage with limited or no benefits. The goal is to support individuals with disabilities to gain self-sufficiency and improve their quality of life. Career Pathways approaches are designed with this goal as the primary objective.

Individuals with barriers to employment, including those with disabilities, have not typically been included in career pathways programs (Schwartz et al, 2018). With the emphasis on career pathways approaches and partnerships between workforce partners under WIOA, job seekers with disabilities benefit at multiple levels. With VR being at the table, they can advocate to make sure people with disabilities have access to certified trainings in industries with quality jobs and high growth potential. VR provides career development guidance and assistance in mapping out career pathways that build on their existing interests and skills and match them to job opportunities that offer the potential for upward mobility with the needed credentials to advance. Additionally, workforce training programs assist with training costs.

The Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities Model Demonstration Projects are funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) Grants #H235N150008 and #H235N150004. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.