October 9, 2023 – Future of Work

Education Design Lab: Working with Montana employers to build micro-pathways from the bottom up


September 2023 Gallup survey found an increasing number of U.S. workers are concerned artificial intelligence will make their jobs obsolete. 

Worries like this one are not new. Whether it is trade or technology, change produces anxiety. But new learning models, including micro-pathways (programs that can be completed in under a year to unlock job opportunities), can reduce unease by helping workers master new skills that enable them to keep advancing no matter how work, or the economy, changes.

Many of these tools are being developed by innovators like the Education Design Lab, a national nonprofit organization that creates bottom-up change by working with employers and other community stakeholders to co-design, prototype, and test new education-to-workforce models.

Education Design Lab launches micro-pathways initiative in Montana

With more than a dozen partners in Montana, the Education Design Lab (the Lab) recently launched a “Year to Career” initiative that will bring local colleges, employers, learners, and stakeholders together to design skills-focused educational pathways for adult learners. 

Twelve Montana colleges will participate in the initiative. Over two years, they will establish 12-20 micro-pathways that will put learners on the path to find fulfilling, well-paying work and give them the opportunity to return to the classroom as necessary to advance in their career. 

Other stakeholders invited to partner in this effort include the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Hospital Association, and the Montana High-Tech Business Alliance. The Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) and the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation provided funding for the initiative. 

Many workforce training programs are built based on traditional learning models and input from labor market data and employer feedback. The Lab uses human-centered design to create pathways that meet learner needs. It also collaborates with employers from the beginning to develop programs to help learners adapt as the local, national, and global economies change.

“’Year to Career’ is unique in that it brings together community stakeholders to collaboratively build learning pathways from the bottom up,” CKF Executive Director Ryan Stowers said. “Micro-pathways are high-quality, flexible, cost-effective options for educational attainment that help individuals develop their unique aptitudes to advance in their career, pivot to a new industry, and find fulfillment in their work.”

Micro-pathways advance economic opportunity

While the Lab will provide the design framework for the initiative, the Montana University System’s Two Year Council and other partners will design, implement, support, and leverage the stackable credentials to advance economic opportunity across the state. 

Each pathway will center around a high-growth industry, based on data and feedback from industry partners across the state. 

“Student success, and Montana’s future, depends on innovation and fresh, new thinking to transform the way education is delivered,” Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said. “With this new micro-credential initiative, Montana is paving the way toward greater educational and career opportunities, and a brighter future, for Montanans.”

Lab’s “Year to Career” initiative will spur other bottom up solutions

The “Year to Career” initiative also will offer Montana’s first Design Fellows program, giving postsecondary institution and system leaders, government policy advisors, economic development, and business leaders the chance to learn from others who have designed and implemented micro-pathways. 

With the support of the Lab’s designers and college partners, Fellows will design a micro-pathway implementation blueprint for Montana.

“Being able to work not just with the colleges, but also alongside innovative state leaders in Montana marks a major milestone in our ability to create greater economic opportunity for learners in an increasingly skills-based ecosystem,” said Education Design Lab President and CEO Bill Hughes. “We look forward to seeing how this work can scale and inspire other states to rethink how they are creating pathways from college to career.”

Read more about “Year to Career” Initiative. Read more about the Education Design Lab’s efforts to build micro-pathways from the bottom-up.