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Maximizing Return on Education with Micropathways for Workforce Development

Today’s postsecondary students need pathways that set them on track for the career they want to pursue at the salaries they need to earn. 

The importance of a robust college-to-career pipeline strategy has become increasingly evident in higher education. By forging partnerships and designing pathways, higher ed institutions can help learners get on a good career path for themselves and their families. In this interview, Joe Thiel and Lisa Larson discuss the career pipeline strategy higher ed needs, common challenges they face and what it takes to get intuitional buy-in.


The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed to focus on creating a college-to-career pipeline strategy?


Lisa Larson (LL): Community colleges are based in their communities to help serve existing employers in the community. They help bring in new employers—be it economic or workforce developers. They’re there to leverage the community in so many ways to help people reach their personal and professional goals by building skills, creating a talent pipeline that allows people to find passion in what they do, find a career they can advance in and stay in their communities.

Joe Thiel (JT): From a Montana perspective, we’re a big state with not many people. We have many small communities—farming, mining or natural resource parks—and the colleges that serve them are central to that community’s chance of sustaining itself.

You still need people to fill critical roles like teachers, medical professionals and farmers. So, it’s vital to have clear college-to-career pipelines and build relationships. We also have to think about sustainability business and delivery models to offer those pipelines in rural places. We’re facing an existential threat in rural America, and figuring out how to grow talent locally is important for communities to thrive.

Evo: What are some of the common challenges you’re seeing when it comes to implementing and scaling microcredentials and pathways?

LL: Across the board, we’re trying to help colleges design around capacity. How do we think about the teams they’re bringing in to design with the skills and backgrounds they have to create these pathways? It’s also important to think about who’s in their ecosystems—partners and employers.

With employers, there are important aspects to thriving and surviving—and some are in the state of being right now. So, how do they go through a transformation of being, to innovating to thriving? With Montana, we’re bringing all twelve community colleges and their partners together to learn from each other, bringing the most value to the state and its communities.

JT: For context, Montana has twelve two-year colleges and seven tribal colleges. All are under 2000 student FTE. All but two or three in a good year are under a thousand.

We also have the smallest average business size in the nation. Typically, that’s not how higher ed community colleges nationally operate business partnerships. For some, it’s about their partnership with Amazon. For us, it’s about understanding an entire business community’s needs with the constrained bandwidth that we have.

Our theory is thinking about partnerships with the groups who serve them in other ways. Our anchor groups are economic developers. Our main partner in the community college growth engine fund is the Montana Economic Developers Association. All regional economic development agencies have helped us with the workforce aspect because it’s the binding constraint for the communities we both serve. The Department of Labor and Industry also has a business engagement team and job services team are chipping in support. We want to ensure we have their input, ideas and support.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome some of the challenges you mentioned, and how do you get buy-in across the institution?

LL : When it comes to buy-in, it’s about addressing the opportunities ahead. For us it’s the opportunities across the twelve colleges and incorporating micropathways to provide additional access points for those who haven’t seen postsecondary education as an option.


There are many challenges when it comes to learners, but having the colleges think about the opportunity to come in with the design lab and have our own sandbox to create and dig around is important. We can look at these challenges and have good conversations about how to be more effective and efficient.

We need to bring together everyone across the state to collaborate and leverage resources at hand. Whether that’s finances, faculty, equipment or technology, it’s a way to best improve the opportunities at hand.

JT: Across our institutions we have people at both ends of the enthusiasm spectrum. The more enthusiastic say we’re in a wild west credentialing space and need the infrastructure for our credentialing paths make sense to both students and employers. They must be sustainable, trackable and recognized. Higher ed is experimenting, but we want to move on from experimenting to sustaining, evaluating and growing. The value in us doing this together is making connections and supporting each other where needed.

On the partnership side, we have faculty who are experts in designing and delivering curricula, but they’re not always experts on marketing careers to learners. That’s an area where our interests align with industry’s interests. So, if we work together, we can be more efficient and sustainable to deliver these programs to the right people and build that pipeline.

Evo: How is the state of Montana executing the college-to-career pipeline?

JT: We have a lot going on, which will hopefully tie some of our key projects together. During the pandemic, Montana’s two-year colleges created many short-term rapid re-training opportunities for key jobs. We’ve increased non-credit training opportunities through a group called Accelerate Montana, which is part of the University of Montana, to help develop and advertise this rapid training. 

Longer term, we want those non-credit trainings to lead to careers. There have to be recognized pathways for prior experience. We’re currently working on our credit for prior learning infrastructure to make clear pathways to a longer credential that allows someone to advance in their career.

LL: The design teams are spending a lot of time in that ecosystem. Who are the partners across the state we’ll be working with, and how can we leverage each other to overcome some of the challenges? They’re also developing learner personas to understand who does and doesn’t have the same level of access or opportunity as others. With that understanding, we can help drivemicropathways designed to serve those learner needs and ensure they can move into their communities and into great careers.

Evo: What impact will these pathways have on learners and the community?


LL: They allow people to understand their passion, interests and experiences and how they can articulate them into programs that form micropathways. We want them to find the careers that are right for them and allow them to earn a livable wage for their families.

Pathways can also help attract new businesses to the area. As we prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs to support the community, how do they fit into all of this? The impact is that people are prepared to work in an industry, can advance within it, transfer their skills and continue to meet their own personal professional goals, while having an economic impact on communities across the state.

JT: Nationally, there are many questions and concerns about the return on investment higher education offers. Well-constructed micropathways built on partnerships with industry are a good antidote if they have the right supporting infrastructure.

These pathways provide an achievable option to get training done in less than a year. They also help students move ahead if they want to later upskill and go on to achieving a degree. That connecting architecture is important. It allows us to engage in new ways with a large population that has either had a bad experience with higher ed or simply didn’t think it was an option. They get the training they need, feel valued and have access to on-ramps to degrees that can help them later down the line.