Labor market research consistently identifies healthcare as one of the fastest growing industries across the country in terms of jobs and opportunity. As a result, healthcare has become one of the most frequently targeted sectors for career pathways initiatives.

These initiatives provide postsecondary education and training organized in a series of steps designed to provide credentials with labor market value. Career pathways programs often include supports and connections to employers. These programs aim to help low-income individuals find and advance in high-quality jobs that allow them to support themselves and their families.

In a study conducted by the Department of Labor’s Chief Evaluation Office, over 80 percent of career pathways studies and 70 percent of career pathways initiatives targeted healthcare, making it the most prominent sector by nearly 20 percentage points (manufacturing and IT round out the top three).

With this potential for growth in mind, the Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) program was created as part of the Affordable Care Act. Administered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF), HPOG provides education, training, support services, and employment assistance for low-income individuals for in-demand, well-paid healthcare occupations.

For HPOG programs, evaluation is a key piece of the puzzle: stakeholders want information about program implementation, systems change, and outcomes, how these outcomes vary across populations, and the locally adopted program components that influence them.

One such stakeholder is CAP Tulsa, a community action agency focused on interrupting the cycle of poverty through a whole-family approach. CAP Tulsa is well known for providing high-quality early education services for young children, but the organization also provides HPOG training and a range of supportive services designed to improve the economic status of parents through its CareerAdvance program. Comprehensive programs like CAP Tulsa rely on comprehensive evaluation strategies. This is where ACF’s HPOG evaluation strategy comes into play.

The HPOG University Partnership Research Grants (HPOG UP) are one component of this strategy and fund studies conducted by university-based researchers partnering with one or more HPOG program to answer specific questions about how to improve HPOG services within local contexts. CAP Tulsa’s partner is Northwestern University. Just like their program partner, the Northwestern team is looking at the whole family to measure CAP Tulsa’s impact. Their unique approach to evaluation involves studying impacts on children, even at a very young age, to see how they are affected by their parents’ participation in HPOG programming.

However, there is no “one size fits all” for program studies, just as there is “no one size fits all” in the way programs support their participants. For example, Brandeis University’s HPOG UP study is taking a different approach to its work with the WorkPlace, Inc. HPOG program in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Brandeis team is studying factors that both help and hinder career advancement for entry-level healthcare workers and plans to use the information gathered to develop a career advancement curriculum that could be used to support improvement of healthcare training programs across the country.

Another HPOG UP grantee, Loyola University of Chicago, is studying how goal-directed support and employer coaching affects individuals enrolled in Chicago State University’s HPOG program. Central to Loyola’s work is the concept of “Psychological Self-Sufficiency” (PSS), which refers to the internal force inside someone that drives change, transforming barriers or obstacles into action.

The team has found that PSS is associated with improvements in physical and mental health, executive functioning, resilience, and grit. These findings could have practical implications for HPOG and other career pathways programs that provide supports targeting education and employment-related outcomes. Although this study is still in progress, bolstering PSS in HPOG program participants has shown some promising results upon which to build future interventions.

The HPOG UP studies highlight the many possibilities for healthcare career pathways programming and the ways these programs can be studied. Each assesses different ways healthcare training can be improved to meet the needs of specific individuals and families, from focusing on whole family impacts to supporting career advancement to fostering internal motivation and resilience. Studies such as those conducted by the HPOG UP grantees show that successful healthcare training programs (and other sector-based programs like HPOG) focus on more than just the skills. They also include support services that can help individuals find and maintain employment, grow and advance in their careers, and achieve long-term economic stability for their families.

Nicole Wright, Analyst, ICF

Nicole Wright is an analyst at ICF, where she works on a variety of projects related to family stability, economic self-sufficiency, and workforce development. Her primary responsibilities include data collection, management, and analysis in support of a wide variety of evaluations. She also provides support for federal grant programs, such as HPOG UP, and associated training and technical assistance initiatives.

Jackie Rhodes, Manager, ICF

Jackie Rhodes is a manager at ICF, where she works on training, technical assistance, and evaluation initiatives related to capacity building, TANF, self-sufficiency, workforce systems, career development, disconnected youth, and family strengthening. She is currently the project manager of the HPOG UP research support project with the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.

The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.