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What is Work-Based Learning?

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Ask any five-year-old what they want to be when they grow up and they’ll give you a definitive answer. It may be anything from a parachuting ice cream vendor to a firefighter or a doctor, but you’ll get an answer, loud and clear.

Ask the same question to a group of high school students, though, and you’ll get something different. You might get nothing, or maybe a mumble. You might get a thoughtful response.

As kids grow up, the answer gets murkier. Why? They’re generally more inward, and although they’re aware of more options and have a greater breadth of interests, they generally have limited opportunities to pursue their career interests.

High school kids need help figuring out career paths.

Enter work-based learning programs.

What are work-based learning programs?

Work-based learning programs give students the opportunity to gain real-world work experiences without having to make career commitments.

According to the Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning at Jobs for the Future,

Work-based learning looks beyond the classroom to expand academic and technical learning and accelerate advancement along career pathways. Work-based learning is defined as a student or worker completing meaningful job tasks in a workplace that develop readiness for work, knowledge, and skills that support entry or advancement in a particular career field. Work-based learning supports a continuum of lifelong learning and skill development for a range of workers and learners—K-12 students, young adults, college students, adult jobseekers, and incumbent workers.

Work-based learning gives students valuable, work-ready experiences that give them a leg up while they’re still in high school.

The model functions on a four-part continuum with career exploration at its core.

Career Exploration

Think back to those five-year-olds for a minute. Remember the first time you went to the dentist? On your first visit, you probably learned about the chair and all the tools. Maybe you didn’t even have a cleaning. That’s career exploration. Little kids engage in career exploration all the time, whether they realize it or not.

As little kids grow up, they’re less focused on learning about their surroundings and more focused on themselves — it’s normal and natural. That’s why bigger kids need help with it.

At the core of the work-based learning model is the concept of exploration. It essentially allows students to go back to feeling like they’re five years old at the dentist’s office — in a good way — again. In this phase, students learn more about different careers. They’re not in specific work-based learning environments, but they gain information and insight into potential work-based learning opportunities. Students can explore careers by attending career fairs, participating in mock interviews, doing industry-related projects at their schools, and completing interest inventories.

It’s the equivalent of creating that same initial dentist-chair moment of awe for big kids. It takes some work.

Career Exposure

Career exposure takes that concept of exploration and expands on it. It’s more than one trip to the dentist’s office, so to speak, and one of those trips involves an actual cleaning. Students spend short periods of time participating in job shadows, company tours, mentoring, job simulations, and informational interviews with the goal of gaining introductory knowledge of a career path.

As students explore careers and want to learn more about them, they can pursue or abandon pathways. The beauty of it? Abandoning a pathway at this stage doesn’t mean that can’t go back to it.

In fact, it’s a good idea for students in work-based learning programs to try several different career pathways to see what they like best.

Career Engagement

When students find potential career pathways that interest them, they may want to go a step further and try an engagement activity. This will give them some basic technical and employability skills. These activities include internships, pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeship readiness programs, service learning activities, and cooperative education.

Remember the dentist’s office? Here, a student considering a career as a hygienist might want to look into something more permanent than a job shadow.  An internship or a volunteer activity for a few weeks during a school break lends insight and inspiration to students on their career journeys. If they’re ready to take it a step further, they can try a more formal experience.

Career engagement is more than testing the waters. It’s a chance to swim around a bit, and get the feel of the career inasmuch as they can.

Career Experience

Career experiences are incredible opportunities for work-based learning students to be paid workers and gain specific skills related to a particular industry or job. For some career paths, students know that they’ll need additional skills for the job they want in the industry and they use the experience to see how they feel about working in that specific setting.

For a career experience, students can participate in registered apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, transitional jobs, on-the-job training, and work-based courses.

In the case of the dentist’s office, a work-based learning student may be able to get a job in the dental office and earn some on-the-job training for an entry-level career as a hygienist.

Students in work-based learning programs can earn high school and college credit for these experiences — and possibly apply the credits toward professional programs later.

Do students have to go through the whole continuum to try a career experience?

No. Most work-based learning programs work with students where they are. Students who need to start at the beginning with career exploration have the opportunity to do that. Those who already know what they want to do and need a way to get there can work with their programs to design credit-bearing career experiences.

How can students earn credit for work-based learning opportunities?

From digital badges and certificates to credit-bearing experiences and preparation for the National Career Readiness Certification, VLACS offers career experiences that allow students to work with high school instructors to design, learn about, and assess relevant, meaningful career experiences. All of the VLACS Experiences allow students to pursue career interests with experts in the field and offer opportunities for potential future engagement.

Work-based learning opportunities give students the keys to unlock potential they may not have known they had by giving the freedom to explore, connect, and experience careers on their terms.


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