Case Study: Exploring Career Readiness in Middle School and Beyond With SkillsUSA


March 24, 2020


Skills USA logo

The Big Picture

SkillsUSA, a national career and technical student organization, needed a robust blended learning program to help learners in various settings (middle schools, high schools, postsecondary institutions, and workforce development programs) explore career possibilities and pathways. The project required mobile-first design; 508 compliance; engaging content development; and a narrative, character-driven approach.


SkillsUSA is a national leader, supporter, and amplifier of career and technical education (CTE) across the United States. Its mission is to improve the quality of the country’s future skilled workforce through the development of personal, workplace, and technical skills. More than 345,000 students and 20,000 professional instructors participate in SkillsUSA. In addition, more than 600 business, industry, and labor organizations offer support to SkillsUSA via financial aid, in-kind contributions, and/or direct staff involvement.

Beginning in early 2018, Education Northwest partnered with SkillsUSA to build a nationwide career readiness program aligned with best practices in project-based blended learning. We designed and delivered multiple sets of “Experiences” featuring mobile-friendly, 508-compliant online learning modules and project-based learning activities. Available to SkillsUSA’s student and professional members and through partner organizations, the SkillsUSA Career Essentials: Experiences suite helps prepare CTE students and others for career success.

Our Challenges

Creating content for a diverse audience

Our audience included learners from a wide range of backgrounds, and SkillsUSA represents more than 120 career fields—which posed some challenges for designing diverse and focused content.

Working under a constrained timeline

For Phase 1 of the project, we had just under four months to conceptualize, plan, design, and develop a large set of materials that would be available in 2018–19. This accelerated timeline required overlapping workloads during design and development, as well as tight review and approval deadlines.

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Designing in alignment with new Section 508 accessibility standards

To ensure material is accessible for everyone, online learning must be designed with limited interactivity. For example, Section 508 compliance guidelines require:

  • Using closed captions for all multimedia
  • Configuring text for a screen reader for learners with visual impairment
  • Designing alternatives to drag-and-drop activities and other interactions that require a mouse
  • Using high-contrast colors for learners who are colorblind

Designing for access on mobile devices

Many learners use mobile devices, including phones, tablets, and laptops, to access SkillsUSA materials. Accordingly, we designed modules and activities with mobile devices in mind and limited the amount of text on a single screen so the content is readable.

Managing a large team with overlapping deadlines and dependencies

The project required a tight timeline, and we met every deadline we committed to. In addition, we developed a comprehensive scheduling system and a storyboard process to organize multimedia components. We also adopted a new cloud-based content management system for storing project documents and facilitating collaborative design and planning.

Collaborating with a third-party learning management system (LMS) provider

SkillsUSA had an existing relationship with a third-party LMS provider, with which we coordinated testing and final delivery of materials.

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Our Solutions

For this project, we assembled a stellar team of creative problem-solvers at Education Northwest. Roles included:

  • Project management and client communication
  • Instructional design and writing
  • Art direction and graphic design
  • Adobe Captivate development
  • Voice-over scheduling and recording
  • Editing and quality assurance
  • Budget planning and invoicing
  • Technical coordination
  • Layout and document support

We first developed Fundamental Experiences for ninth- and 10th-graders. We then developed Advanced Experiences for 11th- and 12th-graders, as well as first- and second-year college students. Based on our successful performance, SkillsUSA engaged Education Northwest to update the Advanced Experiences for adult learners and to create Career Exploration Experiences for middle school students.

three people

Exploring workplace skills for high school and postsecondary students

For Phase 1, we were tasked with creating a set of Advanced Experiences for 17- to 21-year-olds. This set comprised five units on continuous improvement, initiative, collaboration, customer service, and change management.

Our learning design included:

  • More than 25 narrated, interactive online modules featuring 13 characters
    representing various interests and backgrounds
  • 60 PDF-based activities designed for instructor-led group work and individual reflection
  • An instructor guide and PowerPoint kickoff presentation for each unit (pre-recorded videos of the presentations were also created for distance learning)
  • A culminating “Capstone Experience” students complete at the end of the program

Introducing early high school students to basic work and life skills

For Phase 2, we were asked to redesign and launch the entire original set of Fundamental Experiences another vendor had created, which were geared toward 14- to 16-year-olds. This set comprised nine units on reliability, resourcefulness, resilience, innovation, cooperation, project management, responsiveness, workplace habits, and career planning.

Our learning design included:

  • More than 50 narrated, interactive Captivate modules featuring nine characters representing the interests and backgrounds of the targeted age group
  • 110 PDF-based activities designed for instructor-led group work and individual reflection
  • An instructor guide and PowerPoint kickoff presentation for each unit (pre-recorded video versions of the presentations were also created for distance learning)
teacher in a classroom

Providing advanced opportunities to build work and life skills for adult learners

We updated the curriculum we designed in Phase 1 to meet the learning needs of adults (primarily 21- to 60-year-olds). The audience included learners entering the workforce for the first time, people switching careers or re-entering the workforce following retirement or a break in employment, and incarcerated individuals needing to build job-ready skills.

Enabling middle school students to build on basic work and life skills

In fall 2019, we launched a set of Experiences for 11- to 14-year-olds. For this project, we used a different art direction—including illustrated characters instead of personas represented by stock photographs—and wrote much of the content from scratch. This set of Experiences comprised four units on getting ready for your career, technical skills, workplace skills, and personal skills.

Our Results

Education Northwest’s relationship with the client is solid. Throughout all phases of the project, our SkillsUSA liaison frequently commented on her satisfaction with our work. Here’s an excerpt of a recommendation she wrote for us:

“The Education Northwest team established a project timeline that included more than 35 benchmark deadlines on different segments of the project between March 30th and June 30th. This created a very clear picture of their plan for the work SkillsUSA needed accomplished on an intense and rigorous schedule. What is more impressive is that they have met every single deadline and at a high quality. Education Northwest demonstrated their commitment to establish and understand the vision for the work so that all content could be created and approved prior to entering the development phase of the resources themselves. Their processes are impeccably well-established. While their processes are well-established, their customer service skills allow them to be responsive and adaptable within the established processes to achieve the desired outcome. I appreciate their openness to feedback, and their collaborative nature to find solutions to challenges that have been both anticipated and not.”
– Anita Foor, SkillsUSA project lead

graphic showing cartoon people waving

We are proud of our work and the opportunity to support CTE students. As a result of the strong foundation we’ve built with SkillsUSA, we have developed relationships with other CTE organizations to strategically expand our reach in this area. As federal funding becomes more widely available (primarily through the reauthorization of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act), there are more opportunities to create curriculum and professional development materials to support the implementation and expansion of innovative CTE programming.

Take Action

Education Northwest is uniquely positioned to create high-quality, customized learning experiences with a focus on equity and diversity for students, educators, and administrators involved in CTE. Learn more about ways we can work together!