The role of the career navigator is increasingly being seen as important in postsecondary education to help students navigate transitions from education and workforce training into good-paying jobs. This support is even more essential in the postsecondary education in prison context. In addition to the typical post-graduation transitions, incarcerated learners often face multiple, simultaneous challenges returning to their communities.
Career navigators work to bridge the gap between a learner’s education and their career opportunities. When supporting incarcerated learners, career navigators must take on multiple roles, including academic and career advisor, job coach, case manager and employer outreach advocate.
Ascendium supported a project by the RAND Corporation and RTI International to evaluate a pilot career navigators program in the Minnesota Department of Corrections (MNDOC), tracking its success in improving employment outcomes for incarcerated learners. Organizational, operational and budget challenges prevented the program from continuing. Still, the effort yielded a substantive report, Evaluation of Minnesota Department of Correction’s Career Navigators Program, which highlights the importance of the career navigator role and documents some valuable lessons learned for the field.
Lois Davis, senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation and report co-author, said there’s interest in the field about the practical and programmatic aspects of how a career navigators program is stood up. “The field is increasingly recognizing the importance of career navigators, in postsecondary education in general, but more specifically in prison education,” she said.
Michelle Tolbert, report co-author and adult education program director for RTI International, conducted a literature review and survey of career navigator programs for the report. She found MNDOC wasn’t alone in seeing the role as filling gaps in MNDOC’s postsecondary education and workforce plans. She said a key part of the role entails not only ensuring an incarcerated learner’s courses are aligned to their career goals, but also following them through to see if those courses led to their desired jobs.
Although a full evaluation of the program was not possible due to its shortened timelines, the report highlighted the following positive outcomes.
- Career navigators provided a valuable bridge between corrections- and community-based services.
- 60% of learners served by the program gained employment after release.
- MNDOC’s experience underscored the importance of career navigators getting buy-in and feedback on clarifying job functions from other corrections staff providing related services.
The report also found that MNDOC’s career navigators team had a diverse mix of backgrounds and experience, which supported their effectiveness despite challenges. Tolbert suggested programs attempt to hire candidates with backgrounds in education, corrections, job support and case management. “You may not find these backgrounds in one person, but a team that covers those bases can be effective,” she said.