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Why students need work-based learning

Published: September 2, 2021

How can work-based learning programs help prepare students for the workforce and reduce skills gaps?

Do you learn best from reading a book or listening to a lecture? Did you learn how to do your job through formal education alone? Chances are, gaining knowledge about something didn’t provide you with the skills you needed to actually perform a job. The same is true for high school and college students. In addition to learning the what and why of a topic through education, students also need to learn the how through work-based learning. This is especially true in the field of technology.

Gaining knowledge through a formal two- or four-year degree program is no longer sufficient to compete for jobs in the field of technology. So how can students gain the skills and work experience they need while getting their education? They can get it through work-based learning experiences like the programs offered by WorkED.

What is work-based learning?

According to Perkins V (2019), work-based learning is “sustained interactions with industry or community professionals in real workplace settings, to the extent practicable, or simulated environments at an educational institution that foster in-depth, firsthand engagement with the tasks required in a given career field, that are aligned to curriculum and instruction.” What does this mean? It means that work-based learning provides students with the hands-on experience they need to learn how to perform tasks in a career field as it relates to what they are learning in the academic setting.

Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy (2019), determined that there are four major work-based learning models: 1) internship, 2) co-operative education (co-op), 3) practicum and clinical placement, and 4) apprenticeship. Internships are short-term work experiences that may be paid or unpaid and provide opportunities for students to gain some experience in fields related to their academic curriculum. Co-ops allow for more structured and deeper learning than internships and extend up to a year. They are usually integrated directly into an academic program. Practicums and clinical placements are often unpaid opportunities for students to gain work-based experience in health-related fields. Apprenticeships are often more formal and structured than the other work-based learning models. They are usually paid, full-time, on-the-job training programs where apprentices work closely with a skilled mentor to learn a job on the job site.

Regardless of the work-based learning model selected, Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy (2019) recommends that work-based learning be: 1) considered holistically (i.e., as part of a full academic program), 2) elevated and integrated into workforce planning strategies (i.e., collaborations between industry and education), 3) given dedicated resources (i.e., funded to be as successful as other academic programs), 4) recognized by colleges and universities, and 5) designed to increase workforce diversity. Also, work-based learning models should include a scope and time commitment, compensation, a short-term project-based work relationship, credentials recognized by industry, academic credit, and a connection to industry hiring processes. Work-based learning programs are most beneficial when they are incorporated into academic programs that provide students with the knowledge they need to successfully gain and improve their work-based skills.

You may have heard about some work-based learning models, such as internships and apprenticeships. But have you ever heard of an externship? 

WorkED has created a way to provide students with work-based learning through externships that allow students to discover new concepts and techniques while collaborating with peers in work-based scenarios provided by professionals from major companies. These externships allow students to expand and test their skills in real-world work-based simulations.

Why should work-based learning be incorporated into education?

Richard Wang (2019) notes that “in 2017, a task force was assembled to examine apprenticeships in American business.” That task force found that students who attended four-year colleges entered the workforce with skills gaps because they were not prepared for the demands of 21st-century jobs. This made it difficult for employers to fill positions with qualified workers. Why aren’t employers finding qualified workers?

Ryan Craig (2018) found that “the crisis of employability facing America’s college graduates is a component of the broader skills gap: 7 million unfilled jobs – many of which are the high-skill and middle-skill jobs sought by millions of underemployed new and recent grads, as well as tens of millions of Americans working in declining or stagnant sectors of the economy.” Part of the problem is that applicants don’t have the necessary soft skills (e.g., teamwork, communication, organization, creativity, adaptability, punctuality) needed to successfully perform those unfilled jobs. Many of these skills are gained through paid work experiences, so students cannot obtain the needed skills until they work a paying job that they cannot get without these skills. 

Jessica Giffin (2018) found that even students earning two- and four-year degrees do not have the critical thinking and communication skills employers need in the workplace. “Integrating work-based learning experiences from secondary and postsecondary education is one strategy to enhance learning and provide an opportunity for students to gain critical skills for future careers. Work-based learning is a continuum of activities—both inside and outside the classroom—that affords students opportunities to connect what they are learning in the classroom to the world of work.”

According to Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy (2019), “in the U.S., the value that hiring leaders place on well-educated employees has grown in recent years, and employers increasingly favor educational programs that include engagement with real-world work and on-the-job learning.” Both employers and students feel that work-based learning prepares workers for careers. “In national surveys, more than half of college students report that professional experiences would have helped them feel better prepared for careers.”

What are the benefits of work-based learning?

Wang (2019), found that apprenticeships provide employees (apprentices) with skills needed to work and grow in a worthwhile career while employers develop a cohort of qualified workers to sustain their workforce. In Switzerland, apprenticeships are embedded in the national education system and are viewed as equal alternatives to four-year universities. Curriculum changes regularly to ensure that what students learn meets the needs of the labor market. 

In addition to building skills that are needed for a sustainable career, apprenticeships also allow employees (apprentices) to earn a wage while they learn. This means that after they finish their apprenticeship they will have earned an income rather than generating debt in the form of tuition payments or student loans they have to pay back as they would with two- and four-year degrees. In addition to earning while they learn and avoiding added debt, Giffin (2018) found that workers who complete apprenticeship programs earn $300,000 more during their careers than workers who do not participate in work-based learning programs.

An added benefit to employers is that through a formal apprenticeship program the skills of the employees will be validated. This means that employers will know, without a doubt, what skills their employees have and what they are able to do with those skills. Without work-based learning, when an employer hires employees with degrees alone, there are no guarantees that the employees have the necessary skills to perform the job.

Additionally, Wang (2019) notes that employers who use apprenticeship programs benefit by training their own workforce which eliminates high recruitment costs they would have otherwise. Also, since employees are learning on the job, they learn the latest technologies used in the company following company processes.

Give your students a career advantage by providing them with work-based learning through an WorkED Externship Program.

Why aren’t there more apprenticeship programs in the U.S.?

Like Switzerland, the U.S. also has apprenticeship programs, but they haven’t been fully embraced as equivalent options to use with or in place of two- and four-year degree programs. The stigma of using apprenticeships only for blue-collar jobs must be removed before the U.S. can strive toward apprenticeship programs comparable to those in Switzerland. Work-based learning programs, including apprenticeship programs, are beneficial to any career field, not only those deemed blue-collar. Unfortunately, this view has not been accepted widely by higher education institutions nor by industry.

Since the U.S. has a large technology job market and many technology jobs remain unfilled, technology companies should consider working with educational institutions to implement work-based learning programs to build the workforce they need. Not only can technology companies help implement work-based learning programs into education, they should also consider internal work-based learning programs to increase the skills of existing employees as well as provide entry-level new hires with skills they need to be successful in their careers. If the technology industry embraces the benefits of work-based learning programs, other industries will follow. 

Where can I learn more about work-based learning?

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Innovation in Career and Technical Education (2017) created a Work-based Learning Toolkit to provide information about work-based learning as well as to provide guidance for those seeking to develop programs that implement work-based learning. In addition to exploring this toolkit, check out the opportunities available at WorkED.

With WorkED programs, students will get firsthand experiences and insight into technology careers by exploring the fundamentals as well as real-world scenarios from the field. Students will also interact with industry professionals to learn about the latest skills needed in technology careers.

Not only do students benefit from WorkED, but so do teachers and future employers. WorkED programs provide the industry with the opportunity to interact with students and even help design challenges that allow students to test their knowledge and skills. Educators benefit by receiving materials and support as well as having industry at the table to help advance their career-technical education pathways and engage students with workplace learning. Check out WorkED today!


Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, 3 U.S.C. §3096 et seq. (2019).

Craig, R. (2019, March 20). America’s Skills Gap: Why It’s Real, And Why It Matters. Progressive Policy Institute.

Craig, R. (2018, September 6). Employers Seeking To 'Try Before They Buy' Will Change Career Paths For College Grads. Forbes.

Giffin, J. (2018, January 5). Supporting Career Readiness With Work-Based Learning. American Institutes for Research.

National Center for Innovation in Career and Technical Education. (2017). Work-based Learning Toolkit. U.S. Department of Education.

Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy. (2019, November). Designing and Implementing Work-Based Learning: A Call To Action For CHROs. National Science Foundation.

Wang, R. (2019, October 21). Apprenticeships: A Classic Remedy For The Modern Skills Gap. Forbes.