Employer Involvement in Work-Based Learning Programs

Publication November 1999

The 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act was passed by Congress with bipartisan support as a result of concern over the preparedness of American youth for the changing world of work. The legislation calls for work-based learning to be available to all students. There has been debate over whether sufficient numbers of employers can be recruited to create a national school-to-work system with a substantial work-based learning component. Recent research on the question has had mixed results. This paper reports on findings from a three-year research project focused on this question. The study consisted of (1) case studies of twelve work-based learning programs at nine different sites, located in both urban and rural areas; (2) a survey of employers participating in five of the programs; and (3) a survey of a comparison group of nonparticipating employers in those same labor markets.

Three of the twelve programs had more difficulty recruiting students than employers. In fact, two have ceased to operate because of a lack of student enrollment. Five of the programs experienced difficulty securing large numbers of employers to provide work-based learning placements. In those programs, interested students were being turned away or had to wait for a placement. Nonetheless, even though staff were still working to build a larger base of participating employers, these programs achieved wide acceptance in their respective communities, and they were successfully placing students in work-based learning positions. The final four programs were characterized by steady student demand and, if not high employer recruitment, then high employer retention. The longevity and relatively large size of these four programs demonstrates that, over time, programs can gain a reputation for benefiting both students and employers, and can become successful at recruiting both.

The fact that the main problem of some programs was that they lacked students rather than employers is significant, as it demonstrates that employer participation is not necessarily the principal challenge to creating a school-to-work system. Rather, student recruitment and parent, teacher, and counselor buy-in were all found to be significant obstacles interrelated with the problem of employer participation.

With regard to employers’ motivations for participating in the program, employers who responded to the survey tended to characterize their involvement in philanthropic terms. In face-to-face interviews, employers tended to cite multiple reasons—including philanthropic, self-interested, and collective—for their involvement. Thus, employer motivations for participation are rarely pure but are more likely mixed and can change over time. The survey shows that large firms and those with human resources practices generally considered to be “high performance” are more likely to participate.

Our aim in the fieldwork was not to evaluate the internships themselves; however, in the survey, we did include three measures to try to assess the quality of work-based learning: (1) the type of occupation interns were placed in; (2) the presence or absence of particular program characteristics; and (3) the amount of internship time spent learning. Paid placements and those in which the firms intended to hire the interns permanently rated better on our quality measures. Public and nonprofit organizations offered higher quality internships on some measures. Firms that engaged in high- performance workplace practices also provided higher-quality internships.

We conclude that employer recruitment is not an insurmountable problem. Several of the programs we studied have recruited and retained an adequate number of employers and, in some cases, have been able to sustain a high number of participants for many years. In addition, employer motivations for participation are complicated and quixotic; they likely have an effect on the quality of programs and placements. Thus, employer participation cannot be studied separately from other program features and concerns.

Bailey, T., & Hughes, K. (1999, November). Employer involvement in work-based learning programs. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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