Work-Based Learning


Work-Based Learning

How States and Schools Can Engage Employers to Invest in Workplace Learning

Experiencing the workplace is a pivotal step along career pathways for students, so they can see careers first-hand as they make decisions about their futures. High-quality work-based learning experiences pair young people with mentors who show them how to solve real-world problems, cultivate professional skills, shoulder adult responsibilities, build workplace relationships, identify their interests and aptitudes, and make good decisions about careers and college.

Work-based learning takes many forms: internships, job shadowing and service learning, for example. American parents strongly believe that students need these kinds of hands-on learning opportunities. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan / Gallup poll, two-thirds of parents agreed that high school students should complete at least one volunteer experience or paid internship before graduation. And nearly 90 percent of American parents said they want their children to learn more about career options earlier.

SREB’s Commission on Career and Technical Education calls for more work-based learning opportunities for students, more intentionally aligned with what students learn in high school and postsecondary study. This will require a new level of collaboration among schools, colleges, employers, industry organizations and communities.

The Commission called work-based learning one of eight essential elements of career pathways. As states seek ways to improve how education systems respond to workforce needs, career pathways offer a powerful way to bridge the gap between high school, higher education and good jobs in high-demand career fields.

What do work-based learning experiences look like?

Students benefit from work-based learning experiences that begin in the middle grades and high school and extend into more advanced opportunities at the postsecondary level. For example, eighth- and ninth-graders may begin exploring potential careers through job shadowing and field trips to work sites. Later, high school students may engage in school- and employer-sponsored work-based learning activities in a broad range of career fields. These activities may include paid and unpaid internships, school-based enterprises or service learning, among others.

After graduation, apprenticeships and employer-sponsored learn-and-earn programs teach students highly specialized technical skills. Such programs can help states limit the rising cost of postsecondary education while meeting workforce needs in emerging industries.

Examples of education and employer partnerships

High-quality work-based learning experiences demand a new level of collaboration between schools, colleges, employers and communities.

In some cases, employers are taking the lead in developing career pathways that align with postsecondary programs and workforce needs. 

Toyota partnered with the Kentucky Community & Technical College System to develop the Advanced Manufacturing Technician career pathway program that leads from the middle grades and high school to associate, bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Students learn in a hybrid classroom/shop floor setting about manufacturing processes and development, lean and green manufacturing, maintenance installation and repair, supply chain logistics, quality assurance, and health and safety standards. AMT graduates can troubleshoot any problem, because they understand the integration of electrical, fluid power, mechanics and fabrication.

“If we’re going to make a difference, we have to take ownership of the skills gap ourselves. Toyota’s Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program [is] an entirely new two-year technical degree experience that goes beyond classes… It is a career pathway program that first engages students in the fifth grade and can potentially go all the way through a master’s degree.”

— Dennis Dio Parker, assistant manager of Toyota’s North American Production Support Center and North American Lead for the AMT Program

In West Virginia’s Simulated Workplace Initiative, employer partners play a key role in bringing the real world to the classroom and helping students learn how to thrive in a business environment as they earn college credits and work toward advanced industry and postsecondary credentials with real value in the workplace. Authentic projects transform the classroom into a business environment in which students not only have to apply academic, technical and workplace skills to solve problems, but also be punctual, follow “company” protocols, provide good customer service and work well with teammates.

To foster partnerships between industry and education, Kentucky ensures that employers speak first in discussions about the competencies and skills students need. The Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky (TRACK) initiative, piloted in 2013, is driven by industry input and builds a pipeline to postsecondary apprenticeships by providing high school students with pre-apprenticeships. Participating employers choose a minimum of four courses from the manufacturing course offerings at the student’s school or technical center. One course is a cooperative-education placement. Students who successfully complete the program earn an industry certification and receive credit for all on-the-job hours worked toward the apprenticeship. Other than student wages, there are no costs to employers.

What can states do to encourage employer partnerships?

Commission members urge states to incentivize, protect and reward employers who offer work-based learning and partner with schools, districts, and community and technical colleges to build strong career pathways. Actions recommended in Credentials for All include:

  • Offering employers state or local tax credits to cover a portion of student-trainee salaries as well as a portion of the time employers spend training or mentoring students.
  • Including work-based learning for high school and postsecondary students in state economic and workforce development initiatives targeting business expansion or relocation.
  • Developing policies with insurers, workforce commissions and other agencies to protect students and their employers in work-based learning experiences. For example, Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation system covers students participating in unpaid work-based learning. Kentucky formed an agreement with a temporary employment agency that hires and assumes liability for 16- and 17-year-old participants in paid internships.
  • Providing districts, community and technical colleges, and employers with adequate support for work-based learning by leveraging the resources of workforce development agencies, nonprofit organizations or chambers of commerce.
  • Assigning responsibility for coordinating work-based learning at the district or regional level.

Why is work-based learning important?

Young people cannot aspire to work in emerging career opportunities unless they have abundant opportunities to learn about them. High-quality work-based learning experiences help young people understand their strengths and interests and formulate realistic, achievable plans for meeting their goals. And by working together to provide these opportunities, schools, postsecondary institutions and employers will close the skills gap and ensure their economic security.