Sector Strategies and Career Pathways Offer Promise for Closing the Skills Gap

Sep 1, 2016

Mary Clagett, Director of National Workforce Policy, Jobs for the Future

Mary Gardner Clagett is director of national workforce policy at Jobs for the Future (JFF), where she works with workforce leaders and practitioners from around the country to shape effective policy recommendations to meet the skills needs of America's workers and the U.S. economy. She and the team at JFF work to identify best and promising practices, particularly for meeting the education, training and employment needs of underprepared students, job seekers and workers—translating practice into policy.

The number of U.S. jobs that will require some form of postsecondary education or training is expected to reach a new high of 65% by 2020, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. However, the Center also projects that by 2020 the U.S. will face shortages of three million workers with associate's degrees or higher, and five million workers with technical certificates and credentials (Carnevale, Smith & Strohl, 2013).

This is a critical concern for employers that, in survey after survey, cite the skills gap as a serious threat to their competitiveness. Although there are no quick fixes for addressing this skilled worker shortage, there are significant actions underway in the nation's education and workforce development systems to respond to increasing employer demand for academic, employability and technical skills in their current and future workers.

Sector strategies and career pathways initiatives are two approaches that are showing considerable promise for ensuring the relevance of education and training programs and for helping a broad range of individuals attain industry-recognized postsecondary credentials. 

Sector strategies bring together regional partnerships of employers and education, workforce, and economic development organizations to establish education and training programs that meet the skill needs of their industries. Career pathways systems formally align the education, workforce and supportive services needed to successfully guide a wide range of individuals, including those who are underprepared, through the continuum of education and training necessary for credentials that can lead to family-sustaining careers.

Although an increasing number of state and local workforce development and community college systems have worked to build and expand these system redesign efforts in recent years, few places have taken these strategies to scale. The Obama administration has encouraged these systems change approaches through guidance, technical assistance, and competitive grants to workforce and community college partnerships, and Congress has encouraged them through enactment of the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)—the federal law that authorizes the nation's publicly funded workforce development system.

WIOA requires that all state and local workforce development systems work with employers in high-demand industry sectors and with education, economic development and other partners to develop and implement regional sector strategies and career pathways initiatives across the country. This requirement is game-changing in that it sets the expectation that sector-focused and career pathway approaches will become a new way of doing business in the nation's workforce development system. 

But system leaders and practitioners who design and operate these programs cannot be successful without engaging employers as full partners. A pipeline of work-ready employees will only become a reality if employers understand how to effectively use publicly funded education and training resources to their advantage.

Employers can become involved in the development of innovative approaches by working with their regional workforce development boards and community college systems in the following ways:

  • Encourage the development of these systems change initiatives and help identify the skills needed for high-demand jobs.
  • Provide input on program design and curriculum.
  • Provide feedback on credentials that have value to employers for making employment and promotion decisions, particularly as traditional credentials are being reconsidered in view of industry-recognized micro and alternative certifications and badges that focus on the attainment of competencies.
  • Provide internships and other work-based learning opportunities for students.
  • Offer onsite training or release time for employees.
  • Participate in the delivery of training or provide teachers for the delivery of contextual learning.
Taking advantage of these opportunities to provide input in the design and delivery of education and training is of particular value to small and mid-sized businesses that can join with other employers in an industry sector, creating economies of scale to design specialized training programs, influence change and ensure system relevance.


Carnevale, A., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2013). Recovery: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from


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