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CAEL Pathways Blog

Central Indiana Connected Pathways Pilot Program Cleared for Takeoff

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Education awarded CAEL a nearly $5 million grant to create and pilot a national career-exploration system. The technology solution, Connected Pathways, intends to boost the economic mobility of traditionally underserved secondary students and young adults by empowering them with critical information about education, training, and occupational options. True to its name, Connected Pathways has delivered an interactive platform that integrates locally informed resources with individual user preferences, creating navigable routes to well-aligned education and employment opportunities. 

Because the platform is highly configurable for regional customization, piloting the program in several different areas of the country was important. Each pilot location would provide a different context in which the platform could deliver a no-cost resource to help socially and economically disadvantaged high school students and adult learners navigate local career navigation challenges and opportunities. 

The pilot locations include Central Indiana; Rhode Island; Prince George's County, Maryland; Racine, Wisconsin; Maricopa County, Arizona, and Cincinnati, Ohio. In each location, CAEL worked with national and local program partners to optimize Connected Pathways to support healthy and diverse talent pipelines and student success. In addition to the Department of Education, CAEL's national project partners include Lightcast, Vantage Point, Junior Achievement, The Mentor Method, and the American Council for Education. 

More than a dozen local partners supported the Central Indiana pilot, representing education (secondary and postsecondary), private businesses, workforce developers, military leadership, and state government. Their input helped identify more than 30 skills critical to addressing local labor market challenges.

CAEL and its partners used this feedback to complement their regional and national analyses of top industry clusters, including posted occupations, job titles, and hiring companies. They then fed this combination of local insight and quantitative data points into the Connected Pathways platform. There, it joins equally critical information gleaned from user profiles, which include the results of individual interest and skills surveys. This array of personalized and external data is the foundation for the platform's customized on-ramps and pathways to shorten the distance between students and three often-interdependent outcomes:

  • Awareness of career paths that align with their interests.
  • Connection to local education providers, real-world experiences, employers, and mentors.
  • Successful transition into postsecondary enrollment, employment, or enlistment.

The public-facing component of the platform, branded Exponential Pathways (XP) for the pilot programs, is accessible at xp4.careers. The user experience includes three main elements. They are pathways and occupations, the experience registry, and the virtual mentor.

Pathways and Occupations
The pathways and occupations feature highlights specific roles and the steps needed to move from one occupation to the next. Exponential Pathways can offer localized guidance as well as more generalized direction based on national labor market data. Variables such as wage ranges and skill, experience, and education requirements help users evaluate whether the pathway is of interest and/or aligns with their short- and long-term goals. 

As users view pathways and occupations, the platform notifies them of nearby supportive educational and training opportunities and generates sample career pathways that model salary increments and progression. Each job description includes an alignment meter, stylized as a Wi-Fi signal strength icon, to indicate the quality  of match with users' interest and skills. Another graphical feature is a trending arrow projecting future demand for the job.

The Experience Registry
The experience registry allows users to view localized expertise-building activities tied to skills, occupations, and career pathways. Continuing the trend of eponomic fidelity, the Experience Registry is inclusive of any learning opportunity that supports advancement along an aligned career pathway. Depending on the targeted career path, such experiences might include internships, assistantships, apprenticeships, classes, camps, teams, projects, volunteer work, and other programs.

Users can search for local learning experiences based on different criteria, such as skills, skill level, modality, cost, and other parameters. The platform's design presents seamless, integrated information and maximizes flexibility. Therefore, users can view learning experiences on an   la carte basis, freed from preordained associations with specific pathways or occupations.

Virtual Mentor
The virtual mentor allows users to view profiles of successful local professionals and learn about their educational and professional experiences through a multimedia timeline. While exploring mentor timelines, users can listen to audio, view video, and read narratives describing virtual mentors' educational and professional experiences, skills gained, and personal, relatable facts. For example, mentor profiles highlight their top trait as determined by the same skills and interest surveys users complete. They also include fun facts, key milestones from their own educational and employment pathways, and an inventory of skills the mentors map to their learning experiences

In this way, Exponential Pathways can position virtual mentors, who could hail from the same high school as users, as beacons, illuminating career pathways for people pondering their first steps along them. They complement the impersonal qualities of quantitative labor market data with real-world storytelling and advice from people who look like Exponential Pathways' users and are thriving in fields aligned with their interests. 

Central Indiana Pilot Convening
In February, Rob Garcia III, director of initiatives, and Nico Hall, manager of initiatives, representing CAEL, met in Indianapolis for Central Indiana's second site convening. They demonstrated the latest iteration of Connected Pathways and gathered feedback to guide the pilot's further development. They were joined virtually by Claire Muth, CAEL's director of solutions. Central Indiana pilot partners in the room represented education, labor union, private business, nonprofits, and military recruitment functions. In a sign the pilot is still growing, they included some participants who were joining the process for the first time.

Connected Pathways' ability to weave "micro-experiences" into a choose-your-own-adventure continuum for users was a recurring theme during the discussion. In contrast to "off the shelf" career exploration platforms, Connected Pathways leverages localized content to enrich the user experience. This difference maker, attendees agreed, especially shines by showing users that career pathway advancement doesn't have to be a linear process.

For example, one attendee described how the platform could help users navigate between the business and technical sides of IT. Another described how the role of a certified nursing assistant can be a gateway to an experiential learning pathway. And another remarked that professional chefs could exemplify crosswalking from hospitality to health care via the dietitian occupation. They also noted that the platform could destigmatize trade occupations, for example, by showing that construction pathways can lead to high wages. 

Next Steps
In addition to feedback about the platform's design and function, Rob, Nico, and Claire engaged attendees at the convening on opportunities to expand the pilot via new partners and content. Later this year, each pilot site will develop an implementation plan for delivering the Exponential Pathways platform to targeted student groups. In the final phase of the three-year grant period, CAEL will use the pilot outcomes to deliver marketing, outreach, and sustainment plans that for scaling to additional regions and at national levels.


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