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Work-based learning: a guide for educators

Published: April 6, 2023

Table of contents

    According to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), most companies don’t think university candidates are ready for employment. 

    Now add to that the following facts and figures: 

    • College tuition has increased 747.8% since 1963, 

    • The college dropout rate is 32.9%, and 

    • College enrollment has fallen 14.7% since the fall of 2020

    If bachelor degree holders aren’t ready for work, and fewer students are pursuing a postsecondary education, what can we do to get young people– especially those who’ve missed out on key opportunities to build cooperative skills due to the COVID-19 pandemic– workforce-ready in their pre-college years?

    Educators are adopting a framework called work-based learning (WBL) that’s designed to help students gain the skills needed to break into careers– with or without a college degree.

    So what is work-based learning, and how can schools use it to help their K-12 students?

    What is work-based learning?

    Do you remember asking your high school teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in the real world?” 

    Where instructional learning often falls short in preparing students for real-world employment, WBL allows students to enrich their classroom instruction with guidance from professionals who’ve “been there and done it.”

    Work-based learning (WBL) is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) as a framework used in career in technical education (CTE). In its WBL Toolkit, the DoE says WBL frameworks need to cover three aspects:  

    • The alignment of classroom and workplace learning 

    • Application of academic, technical, and employability skills in a work setting 

    • Support from classroom or workplace mentors

    WBL was first defined in the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 as “[S]ustained 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.” 

    In simplest terms, what WBL boils down to for educators is: 

    1. Giving students the opportunity to explore what working in a given job feels like

    2. Letting them work on and solve problems professionals would face on the job, and 

    3. Empowering them to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom in real-world settings.

    WBL is all about exposing students to the work environment, and helping them develop skills to successfully navigate a career - whether or not they decide to pursue a university degree. 

    Learn more about our WBL programs

    Types of work-based learning

    A group of students doing cybersecurity-related projects on their laptops in a classroomIn the age of remote work, work-based learning programs don't need much more than a laptop and professional guidance. Copyright Work ED.

    Traditionally, WBL takes the form of on-site apprenticeships, internships and job shadowing. In other words, directly in the workplace.

    But that’s changing.

    For starters, the lockdowns during the Coronavirus pandemic made on-site workplaces experiences almost impossible—and WBL already was a logistical challenge. 

    Having young people on-site can be a bureaucratic headache for businesses, who have to ensure young people are kept safe and that any work they do doesn’t violate child labor laws.

    However, “work” in general is changing. And so are workplaces.

    The lockdowns showed us how many jobs can be done remotely, thanks to digital technology. Many careers can now be pursued entirely remotely—many high-earning careers that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

    Careers such as cybersecurity: young people can learn the tools of the trade using a laptop, an internet connection, and guidance from experts. The “workplace” can be anywhere.

    Creating WBL experiences in a classroom streamlines logistics and opens up new careers for young people. By adopting an in-classroom WBL program, school districts reduce bureaucracy and help more young people gain workforce-readiness experience.

    Types of work-based learning:

    • Apprenticeships

    • Internships

    • Externships

    • Enrichment programs that use WBL approaches to introduce young people to workplace skills

    (By the way, we run paid internships for high schoolers wherever we operate.)

    Learn more about our Teaching Assistant internship program

    What are the benefits of work-based learning?

    WBL provides a range of specific student and community benefits. Let’s break them down into 5 main categories:

    • Improved student outcomes:  According to the Poverty Action Lab, there is evidence to suggest that WBL programs “have positive effects on a range of youth development outcomes including socio-emotional skills, academic and career aspirations, and work habits associated with job readiness.” 

    • Improved equitability: The Coronavirus pandemic amplified existing inequalities for underserved students. According to Brookings, WBL can help rectify some of the damage done by providing “youth with access to valuable resources such as information, assistance, exposure to adult worlds, support… and, ideally, provide young people an inroad to the informal referral process that is so common in recruitment and hiring.”

    • Enhanced employability: WBL helps students develop the skills and competencies that are in demand in today's labor market. Jobs for the Future (JFF) boils this down to: “Work-based learning helps alleviate a common issue for jobseekers: meeting a ‘relevant work experience’ prerequisite that is hard to gain outside of the workplace.”

    • Improved local economic development:  WBL can contribute to local economic development by supporting the growth of key industries, attracting new businesses to the area, and improving the skills of the local workforce. According the Brookings Institution, “work-based learning can help regions build the skilled workforce they need to compete in the global economy.”

    • Better post-secondary decision making: From choosing a 4-year university or a 2-year technical program, selecting a major, or deciding if college is a fit at all, students who have the opportunity to experience WBL and try on multiple careers before college are able to make more informed decisions about their post-secondary education. 

    See how some of our alumni benefited from our WBL cybersecurity externship:

    How can educators create work-based learning programs?

    Jobs for the Future (JFF) offers the following framework for successful WBL programs:

    • Create entryways and advancement opportunities in specific careers

    • Let participants try job-specific tasks

    • Offer compensation where possible

    • Set clear expectations of what skills students are developing and what success looks like

    • Offer tangible rewards for skill development

    • Support pathways to college entry

    • Provide support that goes beyond the program

    With teaching staff stretched thin as it is, how can educators hope to provide all of the above for their students?

    Working with partner organizations who specialize in WBL programs is a great way to ensure your students reap all the rewards without overburdening your staff.

    Here are some tips for finding a WBL program: 

    • Find programs that your students will want to attend—they can’t take advantage of WBL if they don’t want to show up in the first place!

    • Choose a program that fits funding criteria. Do they meet staffing requirements? Can they provide attendance and impact data?

    • Find programs that have a proven record of student success. Did students actually attend and enjoy WBL programs? What impact did the program have on student outcomes?

    • Look for partners who make things easy. Do they know what it takes to set up and run WBL programs? Are they committed to forming a strong working relationship with you? Can they bring in the right industry experts to give students an inspiring experience?

    Enrichment programs allow educators to partner with professionals who can teach young people the workplace skills they need to thrive in demanding, but accessible, industries. Copyright Work ED.

    Who is work-based learning for?

    There has in the past been a representation of certain WBL pathways such as apprenticeships as being a pathway for less academically inclined students towards trades occupations. 

    While apprenticeships can be an amazing pathway into the trades for many, that’s also a perception ripe for change.

    As we discussed above, because of the changing nature of work towards digitalization, WBL represents a pathway into all kinds of careers that don’t necessarily require college. Academically-inclined students who aren’t sure college is for them can still benefit from the work-based skills development and networking opportunities that WBL programs offer.

    As for age groups, WBL is usually designed for students who are looking ahead to starting a career. This means high school age. 

    However, there’s no reason why younger students can’t benefit from the concepts of WBL. Elementary and middle schoolers can be introduced to careers early, and start building the soft skills needed in the workplace, such as project management, teamwork, and collaboration. 

    In fact, any student can benefit from learning the soft skills that can help them get hired, gain promotions, or become an entrepreneur.

    WBL also helps boost the academic performance of young people who struggle in the classroom environment.

    According to JFF:

     “When incorporated successfully in an educational program, work-based learning fosters academic success for individuals…who may have low levels of formal education, limited English proficiency, negative experiences with school, or long gaps in direct educational experiences.”

    As you can see, WBL is far more varied and beneficial to more young people than it might have been in the past—and can be an effective way to help students develop skills impacted during the Coronavirus lockdowns.

    That’s why we’ve launched a series of WBL opportunities for young people.

    In summary, WBL programs can be for:

    • Those seeking work in skilled trades.

    • High school students looking to gain workplace experience before graduation.

    • Students of any age to develop workplace softskills and as an introduction to different career paths.

    • Those looking to enter almost any career! There doesn’t have to be barriers. If schools are struggling to find safe workplaces for students, they can bring WBL programs into the classroom by partnering with experts.

    Even younger students can benefit from work-based learning by being introduced to careers and workplace soft-skills early. Copyright Work ED.

    How Work ED creates effective work-based learning programs

    At Work ED, we believe that by better combining education and industry needs, schools can help more young people unlock their potential and gain access to high earning careers. 

    The Work ED pros running the Cybersecurity WBL Externship with NYC schools. Copyright Work ED.

    That’s why we design programs for schools that empower students to take control of their own education and create the future they want—with or without a college degree.

    This is our approach to creating WBL programs that work:

    • Programs are guided by local industry professionals in a program that lets students experience what it's like to work in this field

    By facilitating a partnership with local companies, we enable school districts to give their students unique opportunities to network with and learn directly from experts in their community.

    • Programs are created around exciting, future-facing topics, such as video game design, cybersecurity and business startups. 

    We offer school districts exciting programs that we’ve designed to get students to show up. Curricula are designed to help students discover high-earning careers they didn’t know were available to them in future-proof industries.

    We provide externships in each of the following future-facing areas:

    • Programs provide valuable project-based experience and help students build a portfolio of work

    Our programs come with a minimum of 20 hours of work experience. Our staff use a  project-based learning approach that teaches students the importance of team work, communication and meeting deadlines. This lets students begin to build a portfolio, and they receive completion badges they can add to their resume or college applications.

    • Students build community connections through our high school Teaching Assistant program

    We’re committed to creating growth in the communities we work in. This extends beyond programs: we hire high schoolers from the school district as part of our Teaching Assistant internship. This gives valuable (paid!) work experience to young people and helps them give back to their community. 

    If you’d like to run afterschool and enrichment programs that have WBL  at their core, reach out to or fill in the form below.

    Let’s help more young people get the experience they need to thrive!

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