The term “work-based learning” can bring to mind many different terms and phrases. Definitions can range from lighter-touch events, like job shadowing and career fairs, to more intensive hands-on experiences, like internships and apprenticeships. It is critical states define work-based learning opportunities and communicate these definitions and opportunities to educators, families and employers. But the work cannot stop there.
Most students aren’t hearing about these opportunities in their states. ASA conducted a national field overview of high school internships and found that only 34 percent of high school students reported learning about available high school internships in their area. That’s not just students’ perceptions of the situation: a state-by-state analysis of high school work-based learning policies confirmed that very few states do a good job of communicating existing opportunities.
Nationwide, just seven states (Delaware, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Washington) have comprehensive, statewide communications infrastructure in place to ensure all stakeholders — students, families, school-based staff, and employers — have access to information about work-based learning opportunities. In many states, forging partnerships with employers and communicating among stakeholders is the responsibility of school- or district-level work-based learning coordinators. This approach to communications relies heavily on the capacity and networks of a single person, rather than leveraging the collective capacity and networks of stakeholders statewide.
Websites Spreading the Word
Many states use websites as their primary communications vehicle for work-based learning opportunities; however, these tend to focus on apprenticeships to the exclusion of other types of work-based learning experiences — and it is not always clear how comprehensive, up-to-date, or well-used these websites are, or if students even know where to find them.
Some states allow employers to post opportunities and students to search opportunities that align with their interests and career goals. Nevada’s LifeWorksNV.org is a work-based learning hub for in- and out-of-school youth and young adults, where students can find internships, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and career and technical education (CTE) programs, as well as learn about in-demand occupations and skills. LifeWorks utilizes strategic partnerships among Nevada government agencies, K-12 public education, business and industry leaders, and the Nevada System of Higher Education.
Rhode Island’s Work-based Learning Navigator is an online platform where employers can post opportunities and educators can request resources based on their need. These year-round, work-based learning resources can range from workplace tours to guest speakers, career panels, or items needed for industry-based classroom projects.
Maryland has several websites that communicate work-based learning information: STEMnet for internships; the Maryland Department of Labor’s apprenticeship locator website for both students and employers; and the Career One Stop website that allows students to search for available job opportunities. They also hold monthly meetings between assistant superintendents of instruction and CTE directors from all 24 school systems to share information on apprenticeships and internships.
Intermediaries as Communications Partners
Another strategy states employ is the use of statewide intermediaries or coordinating bodies to enhance communications efforts. These entities provide additional support and expertise to ensure stakeholders have access to the information they need to develop, implement, and/or participate in high-quality work-based learning opportunities.
For example, in Delaware, the Delaware Technical Community College (DTCC) is the lead agency for work-based learning. The Office of Work-based Learning serves as an intermediary to support connections among employers, school districts, and business/industry partners to scale opportunities. DTCC supports county teams and provides regional and statewide coordination by organizing meetings, maintaining shared resources, leading and/or supporting school and employer engagement, and providing regional professional development.
The Iowa Clearinghouse for Work-based Learning connects students and employers online through shared projects that can be done in the classroom and still provide real-world professional experiences. It includes a project board that allows employers to post tasks that students can complete with teacher supervision, and educators can access a business partner director to guide them toward other opportunities, like internships. Iowa’s 15 intermediary networks are designed to facilitate and streamline communication between schools, employers, and other stakeholders to increase access for high school students.
Connecting Activities is a statewide network in Massachusetts connecting employers and schools to support work-based learning and career development for students. It enables staff to recruit employers, prepare and place students in work-based learning opportunities, and structure those experiences through the Massachusetts work-based learning plan. Massachusetts also maintains the Career Ready Database, which includes summer job programs, transition programs, internship programs, and co-op opportunities.
Decentralized Communications Can Also Be Effective
While a centralized approach, meaning communications originate and flow through one designated individual or entity, can be successful, so can a decentralized style. In Washington, the Career Connect Washington (CCW) program has undertaken a decentralized strategy for communications. The state-level team communicates directly with regional networks and intermediaries and liaises with labor, government agencies, business leaders, and other key stakeholders. Regional networks and intermediaries then communicate directly with career-connected learning (CCL) programs which, in turn, ensure teachers and program directors have the information they need to implement quality programming. CCW also provides communications and marketing resources to its partners. In addition, CCW is currently developing a directory of CCL programs, which will be navigable by region and include available supports.
While the language used to communicate about work-based learning varies from state to state, policymakers and practitioners alike need to ensure that those words are consistent and easy to understand; their words also must not just live in policy but be spread far and wide via strong communications infrastructure and supports, so students learn about available programs and opportunities.
Without a proper communications infrastructure that encourages and aids students to access these opportunities, work-based learning opportunities will never reach the vast number of students who could benefit from these important experiences.