Getting Students Engaged with Work-Based Learning Opportunities

Companies across multiple industries report that they are having difficulty finding workers with the skills that their open positions require. While COVID-19-pandemic-related issues, such as lack of childcare and employee health concerns, have exacerbated the worker shortage, businesses have been challenged by a lack of skilled workers for several years. Companies such as Amazon and IBM have begun to offer training to keep pace with technological advances, and many businesses have also changed hiring practices to focus on skills-based learning.

These changing needs of the labor market require a new approach to career and college planning programs in schools. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, industries facing the most severe shortages are private education and health services, public education, and professional and business services. These fields require post-secondary training, but not always a bachelor’s degree. However, high school career and college planning programs tend to emphasize college admissions. Expanding work-based learning programs in high school would better serve the needs of today’s labor market and may prove to be a better fit for many students.

What Makes a Work-Based Learning Program Effective?

The US Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education created a framework that identifies the components of an effective work-based learning program. After a thorough review of the literature and stakeholder interviews, the Office found three components that when integrated, form the foundation of a strong work-based learning program:

  1. An effective program works with local industries to align classes with workplace needs.
  2. Students in a work-based learning program need to apply academic, technical, and employability skills in a workplace setting.
  3. Programs must include classroom support and mentoring to unite a student’s school and workplace experiences. Support from the student’s family is also a critical component of a robust program, as students’ career choices are strongly influenced by their family culture.

Challenges to Getting Students Engaged with Work-Based Learning

Misconceptions about Work-Based Learning Programs

A work-based learning program is only effective if students embrace this pathway and engage with this type of learning. Students and their families may view work-based learning as a “lesser” post-secondary pathway, a perception fed by the history of vocational education. In the past, many students—often minorities and those with low SES backgrounds—were funneled into vocational training programs. Unlike the advanced skills learned in modern programs, these tended to be narrow in scope, training students to perform specific tasks in low-wage occupations. Conversely, a strictly academic education that led to a college degree conferred a higher social status and was considered the primary route to a satisfying career and middle-class lifestyle.

Students Self-Limit Their Options

By the time that students enter high school, they have already eliminated many occupations from consideration based on their perceived social class and their families’ expectations. Students are also limited by their narrow exposure to the world of work. They can only consider the career options that they learn of in their own communities or from television or other media. A successful career and college program will encourage students to explore new fields and reconsider ones that they previously rejected. Expanding job exploration to include all career clusters and introduce occupations in new industries, such as the renewable energy field, makes it more likely that students will find a field that excites and motivates them. Motivated students will then engage with work-based learning opportunities that further their career aspirations.

Work-Based Learning Programs Require a High Degree of Individualization

Planning, organizing, and managing the logistics of a work-based learning program is beyond the skill level of most adolescents. Coordinating coursework and employment opportunities require one-to-one counseling. However, heavy caseloads make it difficult for counselors to dedicate the time required to individualize programs and track the progress of students who are all pursuing different routes to career and college success.

Engaging Students with Technology

The challenges of getting students engaged with work-based learning are not insurmountable. A modern career and academic planning program utilizing an online platform such as Choices360 can motivate students, drive career exploration, help students organize their learning, and streamline data collection and analysis.

Most students grew up with internet access and are comfortable searching for information online. Students can take assessments to identify their interests and aptitudes, complete career exploration activities that align with their assessment results, set goals, and organize their learning in their accounts.

This self-directed style of learning is motivating because students are free to explore areas that ignite their interest. It is also equitable. Career and college planning program resources are equally available to all students, college bound or not. As students begin to identify occupational fields that match their interests, they can deepen their exploration to learn about specific job titles and their daily tasks and education requirements so they can select appropriate classes and seek out work-based learning opportunities.

In addition to opening up the wide world of career options, as students progress through the program’s activities, they will develop time-management, goal-setting, and organization skills, which will serve them throughout their lives.

Technology to Streamline Counseling Department Tasks

With an automated system, school counselors can follow student progress from a central dashboard and keep a log of communications with students and families. Data collection for individual students and groups of students is simplified with programs that have a robust reporting function, saving time for counselors so they may dedicate more time to direct student services.

Getting students engaged with work-based learning will require a shift in focus for career and college planning programs, moving from a primarily college-planning program to one that gives equal weight to all post-secondary pathways. Students who wish to pursue college will benefit as much as non-college-bound students when all work-based learning options are presented. Hands-on learning does not preclude academics, but rather enhances learning with real-world applications.

Here at XAP, we believe that exploration lays the foundation for planning. That’s why we help school and district counseling leaders implement equitable programs and strategies to ensure that students graduate high school not only with a diploma but also with a plan.

To see how we can help you better support your students and drive state, district, and school initiatives with greater ease, transparency, and data, feel free to contact our specialists today!

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