Rethinking Regional: Leveraging Regional Networks to Support Career Pathways

Published mar. 13, 2017

Across the country, leaders in workforce, education and government are looking to regional and place-based strategies to drive economic development. This trend has created new regional consortia where cross-sector and cross-agency work groups wrestle with the realities of regional collaboration. In California, which has invested significantly in regional career pathways in recent years, the most successful consortia are realizing that working regionally is not simply about inviting more people to the table, hosting more meetings, or even creating more pathways in a particular geographic location. Working regionally, it turns out, involves a paradigm shift from regional to regionalism. Regionalism requires that partners focus not only on creating more—or even better—pathways programs, but instead on a mission to leverage resources and improve the key systematic elements (like the use of money, the distribution of power, the acquisition of skills, the changing of habits, and the cultivation of new values) that will ultimately drive quality, scale, and sustainability of regional pathways.

The work of regionalism takes many forms, and Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit intermediary organization that provides technical assistance to California Career Pathways Trust and Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence grantees, has been working closely with California communities that are putting regionalism into action. In one California region, leaders have reorganized activities and governance structures based on common regional goals, breaking down organizational silos. In another, resource development teams no longer pursue funding opportunities for one-off programs, and in one case, even went as far as refusing funds that were not aligned with the regional mission. In some instances, schools and colleges have revised job descriptions and recruitment processes to ensure that new staff have qualifications to support the responsibilities of regionalism work. Together, these acts of regionalism are serving to transform the systems in which practitioners and leaders implement career pathways programs. By establishing new organizational priorities, reallocating financial resources, and building new capacities in both staff and leadership, the activities of regionalism are compelling people to change the very nature of how they see and do their work.

These system changes can be summed up in the paradigm shift from regional to regionalism: 

  • Defined by geography
  • Based on one-to-one partnerships
  • Relies on individual relationships
  • Focused on programmatic outputs
  • Subject to grant funding
  • Defined by a network
  • Based on multiple, cross-sector partnerships
  • Relies on infrastructure
  • Focused on systems change outcomes
  • Systems designed for scale and sustainability

Regionalism work—like all systems change efforts—is not easy and won’t happen overnight. If you’re involved in a regional career pathways initiative and interested in taking your collaborative to the next level, consider The Four Network Principles for Collaboration Success as a useful framework for making the shifts from regional to regionalism: 

  • Mission, not organization: Leaders adopt strategies and tactics to achieve the mission, not necessarily to stimulate organizational growth. 
  • Trust, not control: Trust and shared values are far more important than formal control mechanisms such as contracts or accountability systems. 
  • Humility, not brand: Organizations work alongside their peers as equals and willingly take a backseat when their partners are in a better position to lead. 
  • Node, not hub: Each organization is one part of a larger web of activity directed toward a cause, not the hub of the action.

Thanks to local, state, and federal investments, right now there is an opportunity for regional leaders to elevate the scale and impact of career pathways by adopting a regionalism frame of mind: prioritizing shared mission over geographic boundaries, strength of partnerships over number of partners, and sustainable systems over trendy programs. In doing so, leaders will hone in on mission-centered strategies to shape thriving networks where regional partners can do more—and gain more—together.