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  • Writer's pictureProject on Workforce Team

Career Navigation Q&A for Leaders and Policymakers

The following content comes from the report Unlocking Economic Prosperity: Career Navigation in a Time of Rapid Change. The Project on Workforce at Harvard and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions collaborated to conduct applied research that included convening focus groups, interviewing subject matter experts, conducting a scan of the National Fund network, hosting feedback sessions, and facilitating a roundtable discussion. Unlocking Economic Prosperity is informed by this approach, and draws on the perspectives of over 60 individuals from education, workforce development, research, and frontline work. 

What is career navigation? 

Career navigation involves acquiring knowledge, making informed, personally-relevant plans, and integrating and negotiating education, training, and work actions throughout one’s career. This includes self-assessment to identify skills, interests, values, and goals, along with career exploration to discover alternative pathways. Pathway mapping charts a course towards career goals, while skill and credential acquisition and job placement and advancement ensure progress. Effective navigation relies on informed decision-making and adapting to changing circumstances. While often a challenging and non-linear journey, career navigation is essential for making informed career decisions amidst evolving labor market demands. 

What drives career navigation success? 

The core drivers of career navigation success are identified as:

  1. Information Access and Accuracy: Access to accurate information about education and career opportunities, including pathways and economic outcomes data, is crucial. Inaccurate information can lead to suboptimal career choices, highlighting the importance of external information in conjunction with internal personal goals and traits.

  2. Skills and Credentials: Navigation skills and qualities, including adaptability, foundational skills, and job-specific skills and credentials, are vital for career progression.

  3. Social Capital: Social relationships, networks, and engagement significantly impact an individual’s values, exposure, connections, and support, influencing their career trajectory.

  4. Wraparound Resources and Supports: The availability of wraparound resources such as coaching, finances, technology, transportation, and child care plays a crucial role in supporting individuals in their career journeys.

  5. Social Structures and Ecosystems: Social systems, including public and private policies, economic conditions, discrimination, and racism, shape individuals' career opportunities and experiences.

What are the types of career navigation programs and what does research tell us about them?

Types of career navigation programs include navigation courses, career exposure initiatives, and intensive experiential programs. Research suggests that while career navigation courses facilitate skill development and provide instruction in job search processes, their impact on adults' career journeys is inconclusive. For instance, a study on a job search assistance demonstration reported varying outcomes across different locations. Similarly, participation in college-to-career navigation courses showed mixed results in terms of academic outcomes and career planning.

On the other hand, intensive experiential programs, such as Year Up and Project QUEST, have demonstrated more consistent effectiveness. These programs integrate skill attainment, career immersion, and wraparound support, leading to notable improvements in participants' earnings and educational credentials. Research by the Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research identified several programs that significantly increased youth's earnings over time, emphasizing substantial time commitment and integrated job placement services as key factors contributing to their success.

Despite the upfront costs associated with intensive programs, studies have shown that the returns on investment outweigh the expenditures, benefiting both individuals and society. Additionally, career exposure programs, particularly for youth, have been shown to positively impact career decision-making and self-efficacy. While research on exposure programs' impact on adults is limited, evidence suggests that they can improve attitudes and intentions toward specific career paths, especially when targeted at high school students.

👉 Check out these related resources from The Project on Workforce:
  • The Workforce Almanac Data Portal: Mapping the workforce development sector. The Almanac is an interactive directory offering a comprehensive view of ~17,000 workforce training providers across the United States.

  • The College-to-Jobs Initiative: Exploring the intersection of higher education and the workforce. The C2J Map visualizes data on colleges and employment; Our C2J Playbook reviews programs that connect college students to good jobs.

How can organizations improve navigation programs and systems? 

These evidence-based principles can help improve career navigation programs and systems:

  1. Communicate information and pathways in clear, accessible, and relevant ways: Present labor market information clearly and accessibly, considering language and format. Utilize social media platforms and traditional media to enhance engagement.

  2. Integrate opportunities for career exposure and social capital development: Offer exposure to diverse professionals and careers to broaden perspectives and enhance networking. Ensure representation of professionals matching the demographics of job seekers.

  3. Build foundational skills and navigation skills: Focus on building non-cognitive skills like resilience and adaptability alongside traditional job search processes. Incorporate experiential learning and skills coaching.

  4. Design culturally-relevant approaches: Tailor interventions to the unique needs and experiences of participants from specific racial and ethnic minorities. Provide targeted support to address challenges related to discrimination and socio-environmental factors.

  5. Use high-touch services that meet individuals where they are: Provide personalized interaction and maintain frequent engagement with participants. Deliver services in accessible locations, such as community centers, to meet individuals where they are.

  6. Provide financial and wraparound support: Address financial constraints and inequitable access to work-related supports by offering services like advising, transportation, and childcare. Prioritize the provision of wraparound services to enhance program effectiveness.

  7. Pursue community and intergenerational partnerships that build trust: Develop trust by building partnerships with marginalized populations and co-creating programs with community leaders. Engage families through intergenerational approaches to drive change.

  8. Leverage AI to personalize pathways: Utilize AI to personalize career navigation, improve efficiency, and enhance job fit. Implement strong policies to mitigate biases and ensure equitable outcomes.

  9. Collect disaggregated data and embed research and evaluation: Measure program effectiveness by collecting and analyzing disaggregated economic outcomes data. Embed research and evaluation measures to assess what works and for whom, guiding investment and scaling decisions.

  10. Center equity by recruiting and elevating individuals from under-resourced communities: Recruit individuals from under-resourced communities to inform program design and amplify their voices. Address barriers to advancement by tackling issues related to access, skills, social capital, resources, and discrimination through coordinated actions across sectors.

How can policymakers help improve career navigation systems? 

Policy makers can play a crucial role in improving career navigation systems by implementing the following strategies:

  1. Embedding public workforce services: Expand the reach of career services by situating them in community centers, schools, prisons, and other state offices. This ensures accessibility for all individuals, beyond those who typically interact with American Job Centers (AJCs).

  2. Investing in and professionalizing career coaching: Allocate funding to develop standardized training and certification programs for career coaches. Professionalizing the field and offering competitive compensation will address the shortage of career services professionals.

  3. Adopting outcome-based metrics: Shift public workforce accountability metrics to prioritize earnings growth over time and emphasize career progression. This ensures that individuals have access to longer training programs leading to quality jobs and promotes equity by setting racial equity goals and reporting disaggregated outcomes.

  4. Aligning and simplifying eligibility requirements: Streamline eligibility requirements across government programs to reduce administrative burden and facilitate access to services. Adjusting eligibility criteria to automatically qualify individuals receiving means-tested public benefits for WIOA programs could simplify enrollment.

  5. Providing universal access to career coaching and lifelong upskilling: Consider providing training funds for every individual to access career support throughout their lifetimes. This addresses the urgent need for reskilling and career transition support in the face of rapid technological innovation.

  6. Collecting and communicating disaggregated, longitudinal outcomes data: Link unemployment data with education and training outcomes to better understand the economic impacts of different training options. Communicate this information clearly to empower individuals with the data needed to make informed decisions and address inequities through targeted interventions.

How can employers improve career navigation systems for their employees? 

Employers can contribute to improving career systems within their organizations by implementing the following strategies:

  1. Develop transparent, skills-based career pathways: Employees can work with their employers to create clear and accessible career ladders that map to skills rather than artificial barriers like degrees. This involves articulating the skills required for each role, understanding employees' existing skills, and providing necessary training programs to bridge skill gaps.

  2. Provide training to middle managers: Employees can advocate for training programs aimed at middle managers to enhance their skills in providing clear feedback and career mentoring. By empowering middle managers with these tools, organizations can foster a culture of coaching and support for career development.

  3. Advocate for upskilling programs: Employees can advocate for upskilling programs designed around their needs, considering factors like time constraints and financial barriers. By communicating the availability and benefits of such programs, employees can ensure their peers are aware of opportunities for career advancement.

  4. Track and analyze worker mobility: Employees can encourage their organizations to develop and apply metrics to track worker mobility, disaggregated by race and gender. By monitoring career trajectories and setting internal goals for equity and mobility, organizations can address disparities and promote a more inclusive work environment.

👉 Check out these other Skills-Related Resources from The Project on Workforce:

How can educators and training providers improve career navigation systems? 

Educators and training providers can enhance career navigation systems by implementing the following strategies:

  1. Provide personalized career coaching: Offer personalized, high-touch career coaching services to all students, connecting their interests, education, and career goals. This coaching should be provided by professional career coaches or supported educators and trainers, fostering trusting relationships and guiding students away from low-wage pathways that perpetuate social inequities.

  2. Integrate foundational and navigation skills: Prioritize the development of foundational and navigation skills critical to career success, such as decision-making, adaptability, resilience, self-efficacy, and communication skills. These skills should be taught effectively in the classroom and through work-based learning experiences to empower students in navigating their careers successfully.

  3. Expose students to diverse career paths: Offer opportunities for career exposure early in the education pipeline, exposing students to various career paths from an early age and continuing throughout high school and postsecondary education. Bring diverse professionals into the classroom to broaden students' career exploration and understanding of labor market outcomes.

  4. Facilitate structured cohort learning and networking: Integrate social networking and cohort learning opportunities into programs to help students build social capital essential for career navigation. Educators and organizations should assist students in developing networking competencies and provide a supportive community to encourage their success.

  5. Utilize technology for personalized guidance: Leverage emerging technology tools, such as AI, to "nudge" students and personalize their education and career pathways at scale. Educators can use AI to develop personalized experiential learning opportunities and assist students in developing essential skills tailored to their individual needs.

How can intermediaries and other organizations improve career navigation systems?

Workforce boards and nonprofit organizations can enhance career navigation systems by implementing the following strategies:

  1. Actively recruit individuals from underrepresented communities: Workforce boards and nonprofit organizations should actively recruit individuals from under-resourced communities for career services and programs. By focusing on active outreach and connection with learners and workers from these communities, intermediaries can ensure equitable access to career opportunities.

  2. Build trusted, intergenerational community partnerships: Foster trusted, intergenerational community partnerships that embed coaching services within community-based organizations. Career coaching embedded in such organizations is conducive to building trust and providing culturally relevant services. Strengthening community networks across generations can enhance social capital and support career navigation efforts.

  3. Provide career exploration opportunities and self-assessments to adult workers: Offer career exploration opportunities and self-assessment tools to adult workers. While these experiences are often provided to students, they are equally crucial for adult workers to make informed choices, especially in the face of rapid technological change. Providing such resources empowers workers to navigate their careers effectively.

  4. Uplift worker voice and empower collective agency: Ensure that workforce boards and nonprofit organizations provide human-centered services by asking learners and workers what they want for themselves. It's essential to build individual agency and empower collective worker agency by including frontline workers in decision-making and program delivery. By involving workers in shaping services, intermediaries can better meet their needs and aspirations.

How can philanthropists help improve career navigation systems? 

Philanthropists can contribute to improving career navigation systems through the following actions:

  1. Invest in innovative career navigation models: Philanthropic organizations can serve as a "research and development fund" for innovative career navigation models. By funding new programs, including high-touch, high-tech models that may not align with public funding opportunities, philanthropy can stimulate innovation in the field. Pairing funding with rigorous evaluation helps build an evidence base to inform public policies and resource allocation.

  2. Support leaders with lived experience: Philanthropists should actively support individuals and organizations led by people with lived experience in low-wage work who face structural barriers. It's crucial to ensure that leaders from these populations are involved in community discussions, equipped with resources, and empowered to inform policy priorities. This involvement helps advance equity in the field and ensures that the voices of marginalized communities are heard and valued.

  3. Advance research in career navigation: Philanthropy can contribute to advancing research in the field of career navigation to develop knowledge around best practices and policies. Identifying and filling gaps in understanding career pathways is essential for developing more effective practices for policymakers, employers, and educators. By devoting resources to gather data and evidence, philanthropy can support the development of evidence-based strategies to improve career navigation systems.

👉 Get updates on new research from The Project on Workforce:

📚 Our latest research on education and employment.

🙋‍♀️ Invites to virtual events for workforce leaders and practitioners.

📈 What our team is reading and listening to on important workforce trends.


Suggested Citation

Joseph B. Fuller, Kerry McKittrick, et al. (Fall 2023). Unlocking Economic Prosperity: Career Navigation in a Time of Rapid Change. Published by the Harvard Kennedy School.

About the Authors

Joseph B. Fuller is Professor of Management Practice in General Management at the Harvard Business School, where he co-leads the school’s Managing the Future of Work project. He also co-chairs The Project on Workforce at Harvard and is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Kerry McKittrick is the Co-Director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

Ali Epstein is a Research Project Coordinator at the Project on Workforce at Harvard University’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

Sherry Seibel has a Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and served as a Research Assistant and Summer Fellow for the Project on Workforce at Harvard.

Cole Wilson has a Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and served as a Research Assistant and Summer Fellow for the Project on Workforce at Harvard.

Vasundhara Dash is a Master’s in Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Research Assistant at the Project on Workforce at Harvard.


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