“Marie Kondo” a Path to Programs that Drive Learners to Economic and Career Success

Thursday, February 4, 2021
Kathleen Mathers

Perhaps like many of you, these days I often find myself searching for a path forward. With many daunting challenges facing our country, it feels difficult to find a helpful role to play, and I look for ways to step back, catch my breath, and regain perspective and energy.

Instinctively, I seem to shift time and time again to small recesses that I can control and shape, no matter how seemingly small, to feel like I’ve accomplished something and made a discernible difference, even if only to me. Those feats usually happen in solitude, an escape from the deluge of media reminders of our world; and they’re often light-hearted tasks that I can start and finish definitively that I’ve put off for a while – like painting a room or raking leaves in the yard.

Turning the corner into 2021 presented an unusually obvious opportunity for this type of retreat. Confined to my home for the better part of 2020 in a house that hadn’t been deeply cleaned in far too long – and that’s shared with two dogs, three children, and a non-type A husband – yielded closets begging for decluttering over my holiday “vacation”. As I sorted through piles of clothes, old board games, capless Crayola markers (who doesn’t put the cap back on the marker?!), and kids’ old school projects, I forced myself to assess each through the Marie Kondo lens: Keep only those things that speak to the heart and discard items that no longer bring joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.

As I worked my way through the thankless task of closet cleansing and watched the tower of “no longer valued” items grow in surprising proportion to those that “still speak to the heart,” I couldn’t help but begin to see the Marie Kondo philosophy as a metaphor for our work today in career-connected learning. If we’re serious about putting all learners on a path to in-demand, family-sustaining wage careers, why wouldn’t we “Marie Kondo” our pathways and programs too?

Certainly, at one point in time, each of my kids benefitted from having a stash of playdoh, board games, and ruffle-bottomed leggings in an array of colors. But over time, the value of these items faded; the playdoh dried out, the preschool board games no longer brought challenge, and the ill-fitting leggings now look strangely odd and out of place with today’s styles.

Likewise, our “closets” of career pathways and programs are flush with outdated offerings that provide far less end value than we would like for learners, especially those who’ve time and time again been left out of family-sustaining wage roles in their communities. But unlike the harmless effects of keeping old puzzles in an armoire, continuing to offer pathways that lack meaningful labor market relevance can have devastating effects on the learners we most seek to help find their way to economic and career success. It sentences them to a future of job insecurity and financial struggle.

What return would we get if we shifted the Marie Kondo philosophy to say, “Keep only those pathways and programs that lead to high-value career opportunities. Retire the rest; thank them for their service – then let them go.”?  Like shopping Black Friday specials, it’s a smart strategy to add new pathways and programs to our offerings that represent growing sectors of our economies. But we’ve often done a poor job of assessing those that have been in our course catalog closet for some time to determine their ongoing value. 

Do those pathways still lead to jobs that pay well and are plentiful? 

Do they set learners up for continued education and training? 

Do they align with the sectors and occupations that seem to be rebounding from the pandemic-affected economy, or might they show signs of withering? 

Will they be drivers of economic and social mobility, or will they send learners down a dead-end path that perpetuates life cycles of poverty?

COVID-19 has accelerated employment shifts that were already happening in our economy. “Old staples” in our CTE closet that prepared learners for traditional blue collar jobs that once led to a middle class income were already in decline and at risk of automation or off-shoring when the pandemic ushered them swiftly out of relevance. The wages for Help Desk IT services, for example, are low since it’s become cheaper to buy new computers than to fix and restore old machines, and those help desk programs are often disconnected from others that build skills for higher-paying IT fields. At the same time, new industries and occupations have gained momentum. There’s high job demand for those with skills in cybersecurity, software development, networks, and data management that offer a handsome salary. There’s growing demand for those with skills in transportation, distribution, and logistics. And there’s a range of opportunities in the healthcare field as we support a population that’s living longer and more actively than any preceding generation. 

There’s ample opportunity for those with some postsecondary education and training but less than a bachelor’s degree too. For example, according to Emsi, computer network support specialists (with a CCNA certification) typically earn a median salary of $63,460. Certified welders make about $42,494. And ultrasound technicians make median annual wages around $74,318. As program designers and policymakers, we must make sure we’re causing the necessary shifts to accommodate the programmatic change demanded by these opportunities.

Yet even knowing these trends, we continue to offer a disproportionate number of career pathways in our high schools, postsecondary institutions, and workforce training systems that simply don’t match our aspirations of helping learners find career roles that allow them to financially support a family. Cosmetology is offered plentifully in our high schools, but hairstylists and cosmetologists across the country make an annual median salary of only about $26,083. Similarly, jobs in the hospitality field are abundant in our schools, yet hotel desk clerks make an annual median salary of only about $24,360. And while many jobs are available for home health aides, those jobs only pay an annual median salary of about $25,272. While some of those roles can be early career stepping stones when they’re layered with additional education and training that leads to higher-paying jobs in the same career space, that connection has to be intentional.

What’s more disconcerting though is that many of these  programs that lead to lower-wage work are offered in education settings with high percentages of learners of color and an alarming concentration of economic disadvantage. These students, much more than their affluent counterparts, need to step into a closet that offers the highest value “pathway outfits.” It shouldn’t be an option to don a pathway that doesn’t lead to a good job. As Jennifer Anniston’s big boss points out in her (not so highly-acclaimed but still worth watching 90’s rom-com) film Picture Perfect, “In business, we dress for the job we want, not the one we have.’. In other words, let’s keep looking ahead to the workforce roles we want our learners to have years from now and focus on offering them the pathways that will lead them to early career outcomes in those spaces.

So, how can our education and training systems begin this Marie Kondo pathways work? Here are five steps that may help.

1. Consult reliable sources that offer clear insight into the sectors and occupations that offer the highest value to learners. That includes running real-time labor market analyses using services like Emsi, Burning Glass, or Jobs EQ that scrape and aggregate thousands of job ads to capture what demand and wage look like in particular locations. It also means convening employers by field, perhaps through surveys and focus groups, to better understand labor market signals to determine which pathways and programs best position learners to access priority employment opportunities, and which do not. ESG’s Credential Currency toolkit includes resources that may be helpful to each of these efforts.

2. Determine a Marie Kondo pathway assessment method. Once labor market demands are clear, adopt a method to determine which pathways should be the “go-to outfits” in our program closet (i.e. those that should be prioritized and scaled) and which should be thanked for their service and retired. Keep the pathways that help learners prepare for the high-value job they want to have. Delaware has taken a strong top-down, data-driven approach that ties funding and program approval processes to pathways renewal. Nebraska’s Revision methodology helps communities improve and modernize their pathways offerings, leaving only those that offer discernible value. Both methodologies might offer helpful strategies to consider.

3. Build political will. Making these kinds of changes to pathways offerings can be hard. Just as you pine over outfits of yesteryear with nostalgia when you Marie Kondo your closet, so too will you wrestle with discontinuing pathways that once were favorites. Perhaps retiring one will mean displacing a teacher. It could mean upsetting some community stakeholders who think the pathway should stay. Remember the litmus test: all students should have the opportunity to pursue studies that lead to an in-demand, family-sustaining wage job. Arm yourself with the results of your labor market and employer validation efforts so you can explain to objectors the clear, objective evidence of a pathway’s value in order for it to be offered to students. Include in that evidence the outcome data of students once they finish a program. Consider compromises you may need to make, likely phasing irrelevant pathways out over several years, or rebuilding them where possible to more intentionally align with labor market opportunities. Keep your leaders informed so they can understand and support your Marie Kondo decisions.

4. Focus on equity. Deciding which and how many pathways should be offered and in what locations is essential. Keep equity at the forefront of your thinking, as ESG did in our work with Baltimore City Schools. Examine how pathways are distributed across your schools and centers, and determine adjustments that are needed. Are the highest-value pathways fully accessible to all students? Are pathways that are less-aligned with labor market needs being removed from schools with high rates of diverse and economically disadvantaged learners? What barriers keep students from participating in priority pathways? What complementary experiences are necessary to help students be successful, like industry-aligned work-based learning? In reviewing achievement data, what supports need to be added to help underrepresented students successfully complete priority pathways? Addressing these questions intentionally will help ensure that learners have an equitable opportunity to participate in and complete these pathways.

5. Honor Marie Kondo as a philosophy to support on-going improvement. Resist the urge to clean out pathway offerings once and check it off the list as if it’s finished, which will undoubtedly help for a while but eventually lead to cluttered space that once again points learners in the wrong direction. Our economy is changing and growing so quickly that our leaders need to commit to frequent intermittent assessments of offerings and be nimble in their response to labor market demands. If we consistently remove or reshape programs to ensure all paths lead to good jobs, it becomes harder and harder to inadvertently steer learners to mediocrity.

Keep only those pathways and programs that lead to high-value career opportunities. Retire the rest; thank them for their service – then let them go.