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Career Exploration

This pillar is a part of the Pathways to Progress: A Federal Roadmap for College and Career Pathways.

For each young person walking the halls of their local high school, the end of their path is to a career, whether or not that path takes them through postsecondary education. All students should have career exploration throughout their K-12 education, where they learn about, observe, and explore the incredible array of opportunities that the ever-changing world and global economy offer. 

Career and Technical Education 

Career and Technical Education (CTE) provides participants with an education that combines academic and technical skills with knowledge and training for the labor market. High quality CTE programs aim to prepare young people for high-wage, high-skill jobs directly after high school. CTE programs prepare learners with various skills, from architecture and construction to finance, health science, and more. The programs can be delivered at comprehensive high schools, CTE-dedicated schools, area technical centers, community and technical colleges, and some four-year universities. 

There are many benefits to a high-quality CTE credential. CTE associate degrees can pay $10,000 more per year than those in other fields, and some areas of study pay more than a bachelor’s degree.1 Those who complete CTE coursework in high school are both more likely to be employed and have a higher median annual earning eight years later than non-participants.2 What’s more, CTE programs can help fill the gaps in the labor market for workers with specific skills in critical industries such as health care,3  information technology,4  and infrastructure. 5

Work-Based Learning 

Work-Based Learning (WBL) is sustained interactions with industry or professionals in natural workplace settings. High-quality programs are coordinated by their school, related to the learners’ career goals or interests, connected to a course, and performed in partnership with local businesses. The gold standard for work-based learning compensates learners in recognizing their time and contributions to the organizations.  

There are a myriad of benefits to WBL for young people. Chief among them is the real-world application of classroom knowledge and skills.6Steinberg, L. (2015). Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. They augment those academic skills by developing technical skills7Stone III, J. R., & Lewis, M. V. (2012). College and career ready in the 21st century: Making high school matter. Teachers College Press. and durable skills8Lerman, R. I. (2010). Expanding apprenticeship: A way to enhance skills and careers. Center for American Progress. in these settings. Participants tend to have better academic outcomes, including higher grades, increased likelihood of graduation,9Plank, S. B., DeLuca, S., & Estacion, A. (2008). High school dropout and the role of career and technical education: A survival analysis of surviving high school. Sociology of Education, 81(4), 345-370. and increased postsecondary enrollment and success.10Castellano, M., Sundell, K., Overman, L. T., & Aliaga, O. A. (2012). Do career and technical education programs of study improve student achievement? Preliminary analyses from a rigorous longitudinal study. International Journal of Educational Reform, 21(2), 98-118. For many, the experiences foster relationships with employers and the community,11Bailey, T., Hughes, K., & Moore, D. (2004). Working knowledge: Work-based learning and education reform. Routledge. reduce the transition time between school and a job,12Hughes, K. L., Moore, D. T., & Bailey, T. R. (1999). Work-based learning and academic skills. The Institute on Education and the Economy (IEE). and sometimes even result in direct employment.13Neumark, D., & Rothstein, D. (2006). School-to-work programs and transitions to employment and higher education. Economics of Education Review, 25(4), 374-393. 

Industry-Recognized Credentials 

Industry-Recognized Credentials (IRCs) are certifications that validate an individual’s qualifications and competence in a particular field or profession. Colleges, universities, industry associations, professional organizations, or certification bodies typically award them. IRCs are increasingly valuable in today’s job market because they signify that the holder possesses specific skills and knowledge that employers desire. IRCs include certificates, certifications, licenses, registered apprenticeship certificates, and badges, depending on the industry. 

IRCs can make young individuals more attractive to employers. Many employers look for specific credentials when hiring to ensure that the candidate has the necessary skills and knowledge for the job. Certification acts as a third-party endorsement of a person’s abilities.14Carnevale, A. P., Jayasundera, T., & Gulish, A. (2016). America’s divided recovery: College haves and have-nots. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Those with credentials often have the potential to earn more than their non-certified counterparts. IRCs are often acknowledged across various companies and sometimes even across borders. They can offer young professionals more flexibility in choosing where they work and make it easier to move between jobs or regions. 

Credentials should be sequenced and…


A credential is considered stackable when it is part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them to move along a career pathway or career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.


A credential is considered portable when it is recognized and accepted as verifying the qualifications of an individual in other settings— such as other geographic areas across the country, other educational institutions, or other industries or businesses.


Accreditation by an independent, quality-review body is a valuable attribute and is often required for educational institutions or for specific educational programs in order for students to be eligible for Federal financial aid.

As defined by the US Department of Labor

Equity Matters

Equity Matters: Balancing equity for career exploration must be done cautiously. There is a long history of tracking for certain student groups that we must guard against. For decades, schools tracked students from historically marginalized groups into vocational, non-academic learning experiences regardless of their goals or aptitude. Today, high-quality CTE and WBL programs have both academic and skill drivers, and participants benefit from the diverse learning opportunities they offer.

CTE programs and WBL are instrumental in preparing students for a wide range of high-wage, high-skill, and high-demand careers. The impact of these programs can be significantly increased when equity is prioritized. Equity in such programs ensures that all students, regardless of their socio-economic background, gender, race, or other differentiating factors, have equal access to the opportunities that these programs offer.

Equity in CTE and WBL is also crucial for economic productivity and social cohesion. A workforce that is diverse in both its skills and background is more innovative and better able to address the varied challenges of a globalized economy. Employers increasingly seek a diverse range of skills and perspectives, and equitable CTE and WBL programs are better at producing such a workforce. Additionally, by extending opportunities to all segments of the population, this work can help to alleviate economic disparities.

Promising Policy & Programs:

Proposed Legislation:

Gateway to Careers Act of 2023 (S. 2402): This bipartisan measure works to expand economic opportunity and support innovative career pathways strategies that combine work, education, and support services so individuals can earn industry recognized postsecondary credentials. 

Federal Programs:

Apprenticeship Inclusion Models (AIM) Demonstration Project: This federal initiative is designed to expand apprenticeship opportunities to individuals with disabilities. This project, funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, focuses on increasing the participation of disabled individuals in apprenticeship programs. It aims to demonstrate effective strategies for including people with disabilities in these programs, thereby promoting a more inclusive and diverse workforce. 

ApprenticeshipUSA Initiative: This initiative from the Department of Labor aims to expand apprenticeships into high-growth and high-tech industries, including healthcare, IT, and advanced manufacturing. High school students can engage in pre-apprenticeship programs that link to registered apprenticeships after graduation. 

Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act reauthorized as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V): This bipartisan measure provides annual funding for career and technical education (CTE). 

Career and Technical Education (CTE) State Grants: These grants, provided under the Perkins Act, are designed to improve high school CTE programs. They fund a variety of initiatives, including career pathway programs, which help students prepare for postsecondary education and the workforce. 

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): ESSA encourages states and schools to integrate academic and career learning. It supports career and technical education and work-based learning opportunities. 

21st Century Community Learning Centers: This program supports the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. It can include career and technical education programs. 

Job Corps: While not limited to high school students, Job Corps is a free education and vocational training program that helps young people learn a career, earn a high school diploma or GED, and find and keep a good job. High school students can benefit from this program, especially after graduation. 

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA): WIOA plays a pivotal role in shaping college and career pathways for young people in the United States. By integrating and streamlining various employment, education, and training programs, WIOA provides essential support, guidance, and resources to help youth, especially those facing employment barriers, prepare for and succeed in the workforce. This federal legislation emphasizes the development of comprehensive career pathways, facilitating smoother transitions from education to employment and ensuring that young people are equipped with the skills needed for today’s competitive job market. 

YouthBuild: Administered by the Department of Labor, this is a community-based pre-apprenticeship initiative. It offers job training and educational services to young people aged 16-24 who have not completed their secondary education. 

Rebeca Shackleford

Director of Federal Government Relations

Meet Rebeca