The Network, which consists of eight state members—California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee (two states were later added past report publication: Arizona and Delaware)—has spent the last two years aggregating information on how best to connect high school students to a meaningful postsecondary education that will lead to a full-time job with local companies and fields.

One of the first places to start, notes the report, is in “asset mapping,” or studying the labor market using ‘real-time,’ as well as traditional data, in the region where the Network is looking to develop.

Even though each region may vary in local job availability, researchers were able to identify three major growth areas of the economy across the eight states as the best jobs with a two-year degree: Health care, information technology (IT) and computer science, and advanced manufacturing. (For more information on how this data was aggregated, as well as information on these three fields, read the report.)

The report also notes that there are four general characteristics to include in the initial design of the education pathway that are the most effective:

1. Have permeable pathways through postsecondary education, allowing young people to transfer credit from one level to the next and move between sectors of the economy.

2. Require students to apply sophisticated theory and application to real-world problems, demonstrating the relevance of STEM and other academic disciplines.

3. Develop STEM competencies and work skills, complex problem-solving, and expertise in communication, teamwork, and presentation skills.

4. Respond to developmental needs of adolescents, including testing one’s skills and building a work identity in a multi-generational workplace outside of school.

States have also identified five major “levers” that they say have proven across the Network to gain “significant traction.” Each state works to:

1. Develop and implement comprehensive systems for career information, advising, and exposure in programs starting in middle school.

2. Gain commitment from employers, particularly in high-growth sectors, to engage with educators to build a sequence of work-based learning experiences for young people in their regions and states, and to provide input and feedback on curricula and pathways development and improvement.

3. Provide opportunities for students who would traditionally not be college-bound to earn at least 12 college credits while in high school and start on a career pathway.

4. Develop and strengthen intermediary organizations that connect employers, high schools, and community colleges, and aggregate and make available work-based learning opportunities.

5. Create and maintain a cross-sector (executive, legislative, employer) state leadership team to guide and champion this work and build public will backed by effective policies and strategies for expansion.

A critical factor to making these pathways a success, emphasizes the report, “is the use of workforce intermediaries…and a neutral organizing and governing body representing key stakeholders in building a regional system.”

A second critical factor “is the Network’s focus on the specific sectors of the economy. Employers are much more likely to engage when sector organizations can play a go-between role and when data provided from labor market analyses show the actual supply/demand picture for certain specializations within the chosen sectors.”

For a wealth of information on how each Network state has leveraged funding, state-by-state best practices, the report’s recommendations at the federal level, and much more, read the full report.