Interest in middle and high school work-based learning programs is growing at the state and local levels, allowing students more opportunities to earn workplace skills and gain exposure to careers before high school graduation, say educators and advocates.
Incentivizing the participation of students and employers in work-based learning programs, such as internships and apprenticeships, is one of the most common approaches to this growing movement. Other activities include setting policies and practices around opportunities, sharing evidence-based practices, securing funding and managing logistics, experts say.
Orienting middle and high school students to workplace experiences can help them "test and try" different careers and jobs, said Julie Lammers, senior vice president of advocacy and corporate social responsibility at American Student Assistance. ASA is a nonprofit that works to expand experiential opportunities for students to gain career experience.
A summary of 13 academic papers on summer youth employment programs in four major cities shows these programs have positive impacts on student employment and earnings, academic outcomes, social-emotional skills, reduced involvement in the criminal justice system and more, according to a report released this month by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While momentum is growing to add workplace experiences for secondary school students, there is still much work to do, including setting standards around work-based learning programs and finding solutions to common barriers, said those working on these efforts.
According to an ASA survey from 2020, 79% of high school students stated they were interested in an internship either during the school year or during the summer, but only 3% actually had internship experience. The survey had 840 student respondents.
One reason for low participation is lack of awareness about potential work-based learning opportunities. In the ASA survey, only one-third of students said they had heard about potential workplace learning programs.
Another barrier is a shortage of available business-hosted career readiness programs. ASA surveyed nearly 600 firms and found less than half offered high school internships.
"Those opportunities to really hone in on a career identity, as well as build some workplace skills and build the social capital that we know is critical for both long term career success and sort of navigating the working world — all of those things should be happening," Lammers said.
ASA has developed a guide to help schools systems and communities build capacity and positive outcomes with work-based learning opportunities. The guide features state-level initiatives to ensure equitable access, strengthen infrastructure and communications, set quality and accountability expectations, and more.
The guide builds on a 2021 report from ASA and Bellwether Education Partners that analyzes states' work-based learning supports for school districts and communities. That analysis found very few states had explicit policies aimed to support "high-need" secondary students and remove barriers to equitable access and success in work-based learning opportunities.
Promoting best practices
Taking what they learned from the analysis, ASA created the new guide to promote effective state programs. Some of the states highlighted in the guide are Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
For example, the South Carolina Department of Education partnered with the state’s Regional Career Specialist Team, career and technical education administrators, and school counseling and career guidance personnel to find and implement solutions to certain challenges. Some of those challenges include arranging transportation for students to travel to businesses and navigating conflicting school and business schedules.
To help overcome the scheduling conflicts, South Carolina school administrators are taking into consideration student internships when creating master schedules, according to the guide. The state is also helping local districts build a course for non-CTE students so they can earn credits for internships, the guide said.
Another best practice approach, Lammers said, is to use an intermediary to manage the connections between job-seekers and employers, which can take the burden off school districts.
Rhode Island coordinates paid youth internships through a nonprofit called Skills for Rhode Island's Future and with the help of the state government, private industry leaders, the public education system, universities, and nonprofits across the state. Efforts are underway to create paid year-long and virtual internship opportunities.
Allowing students to enhance their academics through work, rather than sacrificing their learning because they have to work, gives students the "opportunity to really participate fully and keep kids engaged in their learning," Lammers said.
In Massachusetts, a statewide network, led by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and organized through 16 MassHire Workforce Boards, is charged with supporting work-based learning and other career development education activities for students, said Kerry Akashian, career development education lead at the Massachusetts DESE, in an email.
"Early exposure to career development education awareness, exploration, and immersion activities increases a student’s ability to make sound college and career decisions that can impact the trajectory of their lives," Akashian said.
The Massachusetts program relies on state office collaborations. DESE, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Higher Education coordinate to develop experiences that will increase work-based learning for students, Akashian said.
This effort, she said, is one of seven strategies outlined to help combat unemployment, underemployment and the skills gap in the state