A New Ntional Approach in America

Americans are struggling to find decent work at decent pay, and their search for a good job
is hampered by the nation’s lack of quality, coordinated career development services. Most
could benefit greatly from easily accessible assistance on how to plan, build, and navigate a
career. Working learners are particularly vulnerable. They have no postsecondary credential
that could help them advance, yet they cannot afford to stop working to attend an
education or training program full time.
The wide-ranging stories that friends and relatives tell about how they landed their jobs
brings the need for a more coherent and accessible career navigation system into sharper
focus. A lucky few always knew what they wanted to do, could afford a quality college
education, and found good jobs in their chosen fields. But many people bounce from job
to job, unsure how to find a career that fits their abilities and interests or unable to pay for
the education that will get them the work they want. Effective career navigation assists
individuals in determining a career path, understanding the requirements for the jobs they
seek, and accessing the education and training needed to achieve their goals.
Two anecdotes, based on interviews with workers across the country conducted for this
paper, illustrate the variety of experiences with career navigation in the United States:
A young man who is the son of factory workers nearly dropped out of high school five
years ago. While he did graduate, his basic academic skills were so low that he could not
pass the military’s entry exam, which eliminated a potentially promising career path that
many of his peers had taken. Compounding his underdeveloped academic abilities was his
complete ignorance about how to explore career options and make a choice—or where
to turn for help. Since high school he has drifted from town to town, living with relatives,
working odd jobs, and squandering the early work years that are essential to establishing a
career. A couple of minor drug possession charges further weaken his prospects.
A young California woman knew soon after finishing high school that her minimum-wage,
fast-food job wouldn’t build her much of a future. But it took 15 years of part-time work,
part-time school, and a lot of help to find her way to a family-sustaining career. It was only
after seeing a flier in a welfare office that she enrolled in training that enabled her to move
from being a medical assistant, to a lab technician, to a certified nursing assistant. Now she
is working toward becoming a nurse.
2 Center for American Progress | A New National Approach to Career Navigation for Working Learners
These vignettes highlight several distinct problems people experience while seeking
decent work at decent pay. But they share a fundamental theme: Each of these individuals
could greatly benefit from easily accessible help on how to plan, build, and navigate a
career. Both have suffered from the nation’s lack of quality, coordinated career development
The California woman’s story is particularly significant as an example of the nation’s rapidly
growing population of working learners—the focus of this report. These women and
men, who usually are parents, must work and attend school at the same time. They do not
have a postsecondary credential, but they cannot afford to drop out of the labor market
and pursue education full time. By one estimate, 75 million working learners are trying to
balance work, school, and family.1
President Barack Obama challenged all Americans to commit to at least one year of higher
education or job training for their own sake and for the sake of the country’s economy.
But working learners will find it difficult if not impossible to achieve this goal without a
detailed, sensible plan to follow. The vast majority will need professional help to identify
the education that aligns with their skills and interests and that will enable them to secure
jobs that pay family-supporting wages.
This paper details both the inadequacy of the career navigation assistance now available
and why the United States needs a new approach. The first section describes the urgent
need, which has been exacerbated by recent trends in the economy. The second section
showcases promising models of career navigation that have emerged—created by community
colleges, employers, labor unions, public workforce systems, and community-based
organizations—but remain small boutique enterprises. The third section envisions a more
robust national approach to career navigation services for working adults and explores
both design principles and challenges. Finally, the paper recommends next steps and
federal policy actions that would move us closer to achieving that vision.
Why the United States needs a national career navigation model
The United States lacks a coherent, planned career navigation system. Such a system was
unnecessary when the primary prerequisites for many middle-class jobs were physical
strength and endurance. But as the nation shifted to an economy based on information
and knowledge, education and skills became the paths to success. And gaining that preparation
for work is not easy.
Career navigation supports have emerged from a variety of sources but in highly uneven
and disorganized ways. The assistance today is a hodgepodge of different types and
intensities of guidance offered by different institutions and people with varying levels
of qualifications. On top of all this, demand for career navigation services is strong and
expected to grow……


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