Urban Wire Five Ways to Expand Work-Based Learning to Benefit Students and Employers
Shayne Spaulding, Ian Hecker, Emily Bramhall
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Zach Leggett has yet to graduate from high school, but he’s already working part time as a machinist at a local manufacturing business in Blacksburg, Virginia. According to the Roanoke Times, Leggett is the first to participate in a state-approved apprenticeship program, helping him gain practical work experience both in and out of school.

Leggett is also receiving college credit at New River Community College, which he’s applying toward a welding degree. The cost of tuition will largely be covered by the business where he’s an apprentice.

Our recent report explores strategies to expand work-based learning (WBL) opportunities like Leggett’s in community colleges, focusing on measurement. Work-based learning can help students gain valuable skills and experience, while helping employers access a broader, more qualified workforce.

Our report reveals five considerations as policymakers and community college leaders seek to expand WBL opportunities.

1. Acknowledge that WBL comes in many forms

When working to expand WBL and include community colleges as part of the strategy, federal and state policymakers need to understand the diversity of WBL strategies designed to meet different student and employer needs.

Although there has been a focus on registered apprenticeships in recent years, colleges also offer internships, cooperative education programs, and other forms of WBL. They also often provide clinicals and practica for fields where they are required for licensure. Some of these strategies are direct onramps to work, and others are about job readiness linked to students’ fields of study.

For those seeking to expand WBL, whether it is registered apprenticeships or paid internships, understanding this complicated landscape would give advocates valuable information on how best to promote WBL.

2. Provide resources and support for WBL programs and measurement

Colleges are under tremendous pressure to realize a variety of student and employer goals. Expanding WBL requires that states and institutions prioritize WBL by providing the necessary resources and support. That means the need to provide states and colleges with the necessary funding.

To track student participation and outcomes and improve programs, stronger links between college administration data, WBL participation data, and state data on employment outcomes are necessary. WBL staff also need resources and appropriate staff to support their efforts.  

3. Include higher education and consider equity

There has been a strong focus on WBL in recent years, but it has centered on K–12 schools. These federal- and state-level efforts need to be expanded to include postsecondary programs. Both levels of government can and should create common definitions of WBL, determine what data to collect, and put in place systems to support measurement.

Community colleges are included in expansion efforts because they offer options for flexible and occupationally focused workforce preparation. Additionally, community colleges serve diverse populations and can help address inequity in access to and outcomes of WBL.

At the same time, institutional barriers can make it difficult to address inequality, including some requirements of community college programs. WBL can be hard to fit into course requirements, and some college programs, like clinical programs, do not typically allow pay, which can impede access to WBL for some students.

Colleges need to track who they are serving in these programs and ask important questions: Who accesses paid and unpaid opportunities? Who does not complete WBL? The answers can help make needed progress on equity goals.

4. Engage employers and understand their needs and concerns

Effectively engaging employers is critical to making all forms of WBL work. Colleges need to do this to create opportunities for students, ensure that programs are aligned with WBL experiences, and to provide support to employers and students along the way. But effectively engaging employers and understanding their needs is a challenge.

Better understanding how employers decide to pay for WBL and other forms of training would help colleges and state governments working with employers figure out how to make the case for paid WBL opportunities and more trainees. The federal government could also devote resources to ensure WBL opportunities are paid, high quality, and frequently evaluated.

5. Gain more knowledge about what works

Given the wide variety of WBL models, we need to know more about what works best to support the equitable expansion of WBL and student and worker success.

For example, credit-based internships are often found in community colleges, but we know little about the outcomes of impacts of these programs or how unpaid internships might be a barrier to equity.  

This knowledge is attainable through quality measurement of what works, and for whom. But measurement of WBL in community colleges has historically been limited. Federal and state policymakers and community college leaders can take steps to remedy this:

  • The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics could capture workforce education and WBL as a part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the primary source of data on community colleges.
  • States can integrate WBL into their own data systems and provide employment outcomes data for colleges, allowing them to continually improve WBL.
  • Community college leaders can make institutional commitments to WBL and support staff time spent on measurement. Establishing WBL coordinator positions, personnel dedicated solely to managing and measuring WBL, is an example.

All stakeholders need better research about what strategies work best for whom, to support students in gaining valuable skills, to help colleges understand the needs of their students, and to give employers access to a qualified, diverse workforce.

Research Areas Workforce
Tags Workforce development Job training
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center