Digging Deeper: What’s the real value of work-based learning?

Author: Shyanne Miller

Getting out of the classroom and onto a jobsite isn’t just a field trip. Studies show it can open college and career doors for students after high school, especially for low-income students.

National research indicates that by 2020, around 65 percent of the family-sustaining jobs in Delaware will require at least some education beyond high school. Today, less than 60 percent of our 25-year-olds have that level of training.  

Today in Delaware, state-model career pathways are opening doors for more students than ever. Thousands of high schoolers are earning early college credits. And thanks to a $3.25 million investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies, even more pathways and  opportunities are coming.   

Technical skills are great (and essential). But as anyone who’s ever worked in a professional setting can tell you—the so-called “soft skills” or employability skills are just as important.  

That’s why Delaware is investing part of the grant money into the state’s first ever work-based learning course, an elective class for high schoolers that teaches things like communication, teamwork, and even dressing professionally—the sorts of skills that can be applied across industries and workplace settings. The class also comes with opportunities for  internships with Delaware employers. 

So how important are the soft skills? Opinions differ, but research from America Achieves shows that employers think they’re essential—and hard to find—in new hires.  

So, what exactly is work-based learning?  

Work-based learning can span from middle to high school. Career awareness begins in the early years and evolves into more clearly defined paths toward career goals, targeted curriculum, and, eventually, firsthand experiences like job shadowing or career coaching. During high school, students immerse themselves into a career area of their choice through internship or apprenticeship, among other options. 

Work-based learning (WBL) offers students a chance to make more informed choices about careers before they get to college. Here’s why that matters: 

It increases the chance of students getting education after high school.

A seven-year study of one California work-based learning program revealed that students who completed a WBL program entered college at double the rate of non-participating students.  

It can increase the chances of low-income students accessing career prep.

One national study found disproportionately higher employment rates among teens from families that earn over $120,000 compared to youth from households where income is below  $40,000. 

Work-based learning provides students with the skills and competencies they need to one day become a computer engineer, or a registered nurse, for example. But it also helps build connections between K-12 schools, colleges, and local industries. And employers can often benefit from bringing young people’s energy, tech savvy, creativity, and innovative ideas to the table. 

Who’s doing it? 

Colorado began its work-based learning incubator in 2017, in collaboration with the Departments of Education and Labor, local colleges, and the Colorado Workforce Development Council. Tennessee’s work-based learning initiative uses the course as an option to fulfill high school graduation requirements.  

National organizations such as YearUp (which recently opened a  Wilmington branch), and local outfits like YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans use work-based learning models to close opportunity gaps for low-income students and young adults by offering career skills development. 

WBL in Delaware  

Delaware has been lauded as a national model for its postsecondary prep efforts, having successfully launched a career pathways system where students can access  credit-bearing career prep coursework.  

This fall, we’ll see the launch of the new Healthcare Industry Council. Industry Councils are a network and platform that allows employers to inform the development of the work-based learning course, keep the broader industry, students, educators and the community abreast of changing industry trends, and gather industry feedback on the development of work-based learning and engagement with high schools.  

A new career pathway dedicated to Patient Care also launched this fall, and by  next spring, Delaware will kick-off its first work-based learning course in some high schools.  

The Office of Work-based Learning (OWBL), based in Delaware Technical Community College, will serve as Delaware’s intermediary between schools and employers, providing opportunities for engagement and interaction. OWBL facilitates employers connecting with schools through activities like classroom visits, job fairs, and internships, and will facilitate engagement between employers and schools through toolkits and similar resources.  

Work-based learning is made for students, but employers are an essential piece of the puzzle. 

Research and student outcomes show that work-based learning is a necessity for students and employers alike. Both groups benefit when classroom content is relevant and up-to-date with the latest industry trends.  And when employers plug directly into schools, they can help dictate exactly which skills (both technical and soft)  their future employees need.  = 

Want to learn more? Educators, advocates, and employers should register for the 11th Annual Vision Coalition and University of Delaware Conference, on October 11th. Hear from diverse Delaware voices —including DelTech’s Paul Morris and Christiana Care’s Dana Beckton on some amazing collaborations from the world of work-based learning.

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