Internal Capacity-Building

Developing Career Pathways in Vocational Rehabilitation (VR)

In preparing to implement Career Pathways, state VR agencies will first need to conduct preliminary research to understand their states’ labor market needs. Specifically, identify regional employment trends including high demand industries at the state, regional and local level. It is important to remember that the local labor needs may differ from the state or national trends because of varying geographic characteristics such as rural versus urban differences, etc. Use Labor Market Information (LMI) to determine future projections for specific occupations and incorporate real-time labor market (explore LMI toolkit on ExploreVR).  As part of the analysis, examine the wage data and the future forecasts. Many high growth occupations offer low wages with limited career opportunities. What are the high paying with good benefits occupations? Which offer opportunity for growth with additional credentialing? Determine if these career pathways align with the VR client interests and abilities before investing in training options. Most VR clients are not going to pursue PhDs or choose careers in very specialized disciplines. While those should remain option for individuals with interest and aptitudes in those fields, Career Pathways programs should focus on growing industries with many opportunities.

Once your agency and partners have identified the Career Pathways that are a good match, you will need to conduct an environmental scan to determine the availability of trainings and feasibility of graduates finding related work post graduation. One issue VR and other workforce system partners often encounter is training programs reaching oversaturation that result in graduates unable to find work in related fields. This is why doing the preliminary research and understanding the labor market is crucial. If there are limited or no training programs addressing the labor market skills gaps, is there a need for creation and expansion of local training capacity? This offers an opportunity to collaborate with businesses in the development of customized training programs. Businesses need to be committed and active partners in the process. They can help verify there is a demand, required credentialing, and the core skills that need to be learned in training as opposed to those that they prefer to train on as part of their company’s onboarding process. Another long-term benefit of involving businesses in the planning phases is that VR is now seen as a partner and not just a human services agency. VR is seen as a key partner in helping build a talent pipeline.

Other factors to consider when developing Career Pathway approaches are making sure the programs provide multiple entry and exit points for individuals with disabilities and that the necessary support services are in place to promote completion. Each individual’s path will look different and the program should be flexible enough to accommodate their individual circumstances and needs. For example, will family commitments and other factors require that training be taken over a span of time instead of being able to take courses consecutively. Some career pathways offer 2-3 tiers while others may have multiple job role options as stepping-stones. Also, credentialing will come in many forms including formal degrees, credentialing certificates, and on the job training opportunities.

Download an overview document: Career Clusters versus Career Pathways (Word).

Getting Started

If a state VR agency is interested in implementing the career pathways model, it is important to build internal agency capacity at all staff levels including: direct-service, middle management, and leadership.


The factors outlined above will primarily fall within the scope of the agency leadership. In addition to those considerations, leadership needs to assess the agency’s capacity to implement a Career Pathways approach. What internal mechanisms need to be put in place (i.e. internal processes, policies and resource allocation)? This includes establishing career pathway program goals and the determining how program success and impact will be measured. Can data elements be added to the existing case management system (CMS) or are additional data collection tools needed?

In addition, leadership will need to determine the target population, whether this will be piloted or rolled out statewide initially, and whether Career Pathways should be added to the list of internal services provided or whether it should be outsourced. In determining the resources needed and return on investment (ROI), leadership needs to determine program costs, staffing (designated staff, hiring, joint staff with partners), career pathways model education and training for staff, and other necessary program related resources. This includes determining the role of community rehabilitation providers (CRPs) if they are typically contracted to deliver job placement services.

Once these essentials have been determined, an implementation plan including staff leads, timelines and deliverables can be developed. Lastly, agency leadership needs to develop a communication plan for internal and eternal audiences including partners, businesses, VR clients (job seekers), and VR agency staff. The plan should include: 1) messaging for each target audience; 2) outreach and marketing materials such as flyers, VR internal newsletters, presentations, and informal office chats; and 3) tools for delivery – website, agency intranet, social media campaign, and other strategies.

Download examples from Nebraska and Virginia:

  • The CPID Sustainability Guide (Word) gives an overview of the CPID project and the elements required to replicate the project including defining career pathways, sector strategies for career pathways development, tools used, ways to identify and engage outside partners, and strategies for engaging businesses.
  • The Virginia Best Practices-Cohort Training document (Word) provides a description on providing training in groups to prospective CPID participants. While most training is done individually, VR has identified some areas where several people have shown interest and could potentially be instructed in groups. The document shares strategies to identify people who could be potential candidates and then offer these services to groups of people while ensuring each individual receives the specific services s/he needs. EXISTING RESOURCE: VA Best Practices -Cohort Training

Middle Management

At the manager and supervisor level, leadership needs to solicit buy-in and have middle management assist with operationalizing the implementation plan. What policies and procedures need to be developed, what are staffs’ role (i.e. referrals, data entry, VR counseling, business engagement), and determining staff training needs. Training will be determined by the Career Pathway approach created for your agency. It should include information on the career pathways model and selected sectors, referral process, staff roles and expectations, messaging to VR clients and using LMI in the career counseling process, and any other feature specific to the Career Pathway approach. For example, Nebraska’s approach included an upkill / backfill strategy and Virginia incorporated motivational interviewing as part of the VR career counseling process.

Download examples from Nebraska and Virginia:

  • Virginia presentation (PDF) from a career pathway training for VR professionals conducted in 2018. Describes the concept of occupational clusters and career pathways and how counselors can integrate that knowledge into their work with clients. Includes information on resources and computer systems to access information.
  • Virginia presentation (PPT) for a Managers’ meeting. The first section provides some information about the grant and how it can help to fulfill WIOA requirements. It is followed by some statistics defining the program’s impact, then with more details about some of the academic, training, and job readiness services provided.  
  • A job description (Word) example that outlines roles and responsibilities. 


VR Counselors and other direct service staff play a crucial role in the implementation of the Career Pathways approach. They are the direct link to VR clients, individuals with disabilities and the business community.

An emphasis on career planning places the counselor in the pivotal role of educating and providing guidance to the job seekers. In this approach, there are various tools counselors will have to add to their arsenal including a focus on career counseling and not job placement (i.e. VA incorporated motivational interviewing), LMI and other information sources that can inform the prospect for upward mobility in the job seekers selected career path (i.e. Career Clusters, mapping tool), and other services and support including accommodation strategies.

Business Relations staff are responsible for building relationships with businesses in this dual-customer approach. In communication with businesses about the Career Pathways approach, the emphasis should be on listening to the businesses needs and presenting Career Pathways as a strategy for creating a pipeline to a pool of qualified applicants to help them meet their hiring needs.

Both Nebraska and Virginia found the following practices led to better communication and identification of good candidates for their Career Pathways approaches: 1) use of a team approach including counselors, vocational evaluators, Business Relations staff, and AT specialist to discuss the case potentially even before a career pathway is selected, and 2) more intensive upfront communication and support for the job seekers including incorporating AT earlier in the process.

Download samples from Nebraska and Virginia: