Work-based Learning

Youth Work-Based Learning: Trends, Benefits, and Opportunities for Students and Employers  

Research shows that less than half of respondents who identified as members of Generation Z said they had enough information to decide what post-high school pathway was best for them. Career readiness programs, including internships, cooperative education and pre and youth apprenticeships, that give students the opportunity to learn through work and gain real-world experience before they graduate from high school are a critical part of that process. 

To better understand how business values work-based learning programs for youth, American Student Assistance® (ASA)  recently surveyed 500 US employers about their high school internship programs. Here’s what they told us: 

High school internships are on the rise  

Thirty-eight percent of the businesses surveyed offer high school internships. This represents an increase from five years ago when ASA’s survey found that 30% of businesses offered these opportunities. Large companies are more than twice as likely to host high school interns than small organizations. 

Looking ahead, a third of businesses said they are very or somewhat likely to start a high school internship program.  

Businesses host high school interns and apprentices for altruistic reasons as well as to build a talent pipeline   

Three of the five top reasons organizations provide high-school internships are altruistic: giving back to the community (92%), helping individual students gain skills (89%) and exposing students to careers that might be inaccessible to them (85%). 

Students who participated in high school internships say businesses are making a difference. According to ASA’s 2023 survey of 500 former high school interns, now aged 35-40, 87% said their internship experience helped them understand the type of career they want, and more than half said their internship improved their skills.  

Businesses also recognize that high school internships can help fill the talent pipeline. In an era where many industries are facing severe talent shortages and organizations are looking to diversify their workforce, exposing youth to work-based learning opportunities can pay dividends in the future. In fact, 86% of respondents said that high school internship programs strengthen the industry pipeline as a whole and 81% said they fill the employment pipeline with culturally diverse candidates. 

“We are able to bring these kids in at 16 or 17 years of age, expose them to the workforce in areas they think they want to be in, and give them a year to two to confirm, ‘Yeah, this is something I think I want to pursue in college’, explained Patrick Todd, Vice President of Human Resources and Public Relations, RTC Communications. “Then they continue to be with us, take college courses and grow into the various positions we need—network engineer, telecommunications engineer, whatever.” 

Elizabeth Zak, Leadership Program Manager at M&T Bank, agrees that hosting high school students is “a real workforce development opportunity.” Her firm has a well-established robust internship program and a newer modern apprenticeship program – but both are for individuals 18+. Elizabeth points out that while employees younger than 18 may pose compliance issues for a workplace such as a bank, there are also benefits to onboarding younger workers. “When they come to us, they’re 18 and they’re changing schools, they’re going to college and they’re starting a new job, which is so much change for students who already have an unstable life. It’s just so much at once. And so having them in the high school where they’re already familiar with the people, they’re already familiar with their schedules, and you’re just adding in one thing, the work — it doesn’t seem to be such a hard entry ramp into the program.” 

Her advice to other organizations looking to launch a high school program is to gain executive level buy-in by articulating the ROI, find an executive sponsor if possible, and form a team with representatives from across the company to support the program. Modifying existing training programs and other processes for younger age groups is a change, she explains, so it requires “quite a bit of air cover at the beginning to make it happen.”  

Organizations are finding ways to overcome high school internship challenges 

According to survey respondents, there are some challenges to managing a successful high school internship program. The most common are determining work best suited for interns (43%), attracting qualified interns (42%), and scheduling around an intern’s availability (39%). Transportation and funding were also cited as obstacles. 

But determined employers are finding solutions. Third-party organizations, like Invest Buffalo Niagara and the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE), are linking businesses and educators together to facilitate work-based learning opportunities.  

“The CEOs can say they want to do something, but when it gets down to the technician level of the recruiter, the human resource manager, the first line supervisor, they need more help building the scaffolding to make these programs do well,” Rob Leteste, Business Intelligence and Workforce Manager, Invest Buffalo Niagara, explained. “That’s where an intermediary can act as scaffold builders, enabling entry level talent to be retained and developed…[and] helping to develop things like standard operating procedures.” 

And some state programs, like Delaware’s Learning for Careers Initiative and New Jersey’s Career Accelerator Internship Program, provide funding that may help subsidize transportation costs or intern pay. 

Recommendations for Scaling Access to Youth Work-Based Learning Programs 

The signs are positive that high school internship programs will continue to expand across the country. With an eight-point increase over the past five years and a third of employers saying their organization is likely to start a high school internship program, it is clear that businesses are finding value in early career readiness programs. But to scale these programs to help more young people prepare for future success and address industry talent shortages, additional supports are needed.  

Local, state, and federal policies can strongly influence the future development of youth work-based learning programs. Government entities could help address employer impediments to growth by:      

  • Providing financial incentives: In reality, many students cannot afford to take an unpaid internship over a paying part-time job. And employers may not have the budgets to pay interns who require training and a long ramp-up period. Tax credits and wage subsidies would go a long way in encouraging businesses to expand their youth initiatives.    
  • Creating or funding intermediaries and industry-government partnerships: Since many businesses don’t have contacts at local schools or the resources to develop youth work-based programs, third party organizations or partnership programs could help address the administrative and logistical burdens. The Delaware Technical Community College’s Office of Work-based Learning is one example of an intermediary that facilitates and scales career-connected learning opportunities by working with education agencies and business and industry partners. 
  • Reviewing existing laws and regulations: While child safety and labor laws and regulations exist for a reason, a thoughtful review could be conducted to strike a balance between protecting minors’ rights and well-being and giving them career development opportunities. For example, the New Jersey Safe Schools Project, a collaboration between the NJ Department of Education and Rutgers University, was launched to improve the workplace conditions of students.   

Businesses can also take steps to further grow youth work-based programs by: 

  • Engaging with local, state, and federal policymakers: The business sector is a powerful advocate when it comes to bringing about systematic change. By initiating a dialogue with policymakers on the three policy recommendations listed above, government entities may be more likely to consider how their actions can nurture future talent.  
  • Evaluating ROI: To decide if a high school internship or apprenticeship program is a good investment, employers will need to weigh the benefits against the costs. Factors for consideration include current and projected attrition rates, the cost of recruiting and training new employees, and community goodwill from investing in local students.   
  • Building relationships: Depending on resources, employers might begin reaching out to local school systems or researching intermediaries to gather information. Then when management gives a high school program the green light, the implementation will go much quicker.  
  • Building internal support: As Elizabeth Zak at M&T Bank shared, launching a high school program is a change for many businesses. Training programs, other processes, and an organization’s culture may not be ideal for students under the age of 18. So, it’s important to develop an internal team who can help identify and overcome these challenges and make students feel they are welcomed. 

By working together, governments, businesses, and educators can better implement work-based learning programs that not only fill the talent pipeline but prepare today’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs.  

To learn more about youth work-based learning trends, benefits, challenges and solutions, read the full report.