Expanding High-Quality Work-Based Learning

By David Altstadt, Lexi Barrett, Charlotte Cahill, Erica Cuevas, Taylor Maag – Published August 2020 by Education Commission of the StatesSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This policy brief addresses the structural challenges that prevent high schools and postsecondary institutions from implementing work-based programs. In addition, Education Commission offers strategy tools for state policymakers to expand work-based learning initiatives.

Structural Challenges

  • Employer Concerns: Although generally unfounded, “many employers hold a common concern that labor laws and liability issues will present insurmountable obstacles to bringing youth into workplaces.” Further, many employers have reservations about the time and energy required to develop work-based learning experiences for young people. 
  • Competing Priorities for Schools: “In many schools and districts, work-based learning opportunities are viewed as an add-on kind of programming for students that isn’t essential.” Often, other offerings are funded before work-based learning programs. Also, due to the pandemic, many schools will likely have prioritized the implementation of hybrid-learning models over hands-on models due to social distancing measures. 
  • Disparities in Early Work Experiences: According to the Urban Institute, “white youths are employed at significantly higher rates than youths of color ages 16 to 19.” Additionally, low-income students often face barriers to early work experience and career development opportunities. Work-based learning programs need to be designed to increase access to these populations of students. 
  • Geographic Isolation: In many rural areas that are economically depressed and lack of a diversity of employers, school districts can struggle to provide a variety of work-based learning programs. In addition, lack of transportation in rural and urban environments can present barriers to students who are unable to travel to work-based learning opportunities. 
  • Lack of Infrastructure: Only a small number of states allocate funding to develop networks of intermediary organizations that can facilitate education and industry partnerships, co-develop curricula, and recruit/place students. “In the absence of intermediary support, work-based learning opportunities are often created through personal relationships between educators and employers. Under these circumstances, partnerships often evaporate when an individual changes jobs or retires.”

Promote Strong K-12, Postsecondary and Employer Partnerships
Statewide initiatives help define what programs qualify as work-based learning and establish goals among stakeholders. For example, Washington’s Career Connected Learning initiative was launched in 2017 “with the goal of connecting 100,000 Washington Youths over a five-year period with career-connected learning opportunities that prepare them for high-demand jobs.” Also, the state’s Career Connect Washington Intermediary Grant supports intermediaries that enable partnerships between industry and education, as well as scale successful programs.  

Support Development of Virtual Learning and Ensure Access
“States can provide additional funding – and leverage federal funding – to support schools, districts and intermediaries that are implementing innovative virtual experiences.” Tech-based virtual work-based learning projects, such as several highlighted in a Jobs for the Future report, are designed to help students “gain knowledge of career paths, get access to industry mentors, participate in virtual field trips, and demonstrate skill-specific proficiency through micro-badging and micro-credentials.” Additionally, in Northern Illinois, the Illinois Intermediary Education Systems Center, a policy development and program implementation organization, “developed a virtual work-based learning framework for communities to follow during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The framework focuses on deliverability of opportunities to students and “providing authentic and meaningful job tasks that build career skills, knowledge and quality engagement between students and industry experts.” 

Embed Work-Based Learning into High School Pathways
States can scale work-based learning initiatives by articulating work-based learning as a requirement for high school graduation and/or providing students with dual enrollment pathways for a postsecondary credential. For example, in Virginia, their high school graduation requirements include “a career-planning component that allows students to learn more about employment options and career paths, which can include an internship or other work-based learning experiences.” Virginia also lowered the number of standardized tests students are required to pass “to increase flexibility for schools to expand work-based learning and service-learning programs that promote college, career and civic readiness.” 

Create a Diverse Range of Work-Based Offerings
State guides that articulate work-based learning program best practices can aid in the design of programs across industries and regions statewide. For example, Tennessee’s Work-Based Learning Implementation Guide and Work-Based learning Toolbox provides districts resources on “advisory board recruitment, guidelines for working with interns, employer-satisfaction surveys and student reflection questions.” Also, through competitive Perkins Reserve Grants and the state’s Department of Education, Tennessee invests in career pathways that utilize work-based learning program designs. Further, the Tennessee Pathways partnership “supports regional coordinators in implementing high-quality work-based learning and pathway models in all nine of the state’s economic development regions.”  

Leverage Existing Structures and Funding Streams to Scale High-Quality Experiences
Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and Perkins V, states can align their state workforce development plans and accountability metrics. For example, “states can use Title II of ESSA to support administrators and teachers on the development and expansion of high-quality work-based and experiential learning opportunities while simultaneously using Perkins V funds to allow local agencies to create, promote and scale work-based learning opportunities.” In Delaware, the Delaware Pathways program, a partnership of the state’s department of education, department of labor, Delaware Technical Community College, the United Way of Delaware, the Rodel Foundation, and the Delaware Workforce Development Board all work together “to pool and leverage funds to provide youth with high-quality work-based learning experiences connected to the state’s regional industries.” 

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