The key to better education and career decisions? Work experience—in high school

Fewer and fewer teens hold jobs—but having early work experience is crucial for making good decisions about education and career. State and regional leaders need to step up with work-based learning programs that fill the gap, writes Julie Lammers of ASA.

Every student should have a work-based learning experience before they leave high school.

Whether a short-term project or a years-long internship, such real-world experiences are critical to helping students navigate from education to career. Students get an invaluable opportunity to explore their own career interests, experiment with—and possibly eliminate—potential careers before investing thousands of dollars or hours in education and training, and build a better understanding of the way they like to work. Taken together, that helps them more deliberately navigate a postsecondary path to success.  

My own experience, which included a high school internship and deep connections with mentors, undoubtedly helped me choose a postsecondary education and career path that was right for me. At conferences and meetings when people ask, “Who is actually doing a job they went to college for?,” I am one of the few people who can raise their hand. I attribute that to the many opportunities I had in high school and college to try different career possibilities through work-based learning.

Still, research shows that there’s a gap between interest in and awareness and completion of these opportunities. A recent study by American Student Assistance found that while 79% of high school students would be interested in a work-based learning experience, only 34% were aware of any opportunities for students their age—and just 2% of students had completed an internship during high school. Moreover, there has been a steady decline in teens’ participation in the workforce over time—from 57.9% in 1979 to 35% between 2010 and 2018.

To reverse this trend, high school students must have equitable access to robust, high-quality work-based learning programs. That starts with regional and state leadership, and—as outlined in a new guide from ASA—there are four critical practices that stakeholders should keep in mind:

  1. Equal access for students regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, income level, disability status, or academic path.
  2. Outreach and awareness building among young people
  3. Incentives for employers to participate,
  4. And dedicated funding.

To provide greater access in Ohio, for instance, the state has changed labor regulations to make work-based learning for younger students possible and to reduce barriers to employer participation. Ohio’s minor labor laws explicitly exempt students participating in a career-technical or STEM program approved by the Ohio department of education, or in any eligible classes through the state’s dual enrollment program, including a state-recognized pre-apprenticeship program.

Increasing awareness among students is also critical. Many states have adopted a “work-based learning coordinator” model and tasked those coordinators with communicating among stakeholders about work-based learning programs and opportunities. This approach to communications, though, relies heavily on the capacity and networks of a single person, rather than leveraging the collective capacity and networks of stakeholders statewide.

To draw on those wider networks, some states also have built websites to help match young people with work-based learning opportunities. Rhode Island’s Work-Based Learning Navigator, for example, allows employers to post available work-based learning opportunities and educators to search and track those opportunities across the state and request resources based on their needs.

To encourage businesses to participate in work-based learning opportunities, some states provide incentives to offset employer costs. New Jersey’s Career Accelerator Internship Program provides participating employers with up to 50% of wages paid to new interns, up to $3,000 per student.

In terms of funding, districts and organizations often have difficulty sustaining work-based learning if there isn’t a dedicated funding source that makes the program a priority. To address this challenge, some states have inserted a line item in the state budget or created dedicated funding streams solely or primarily for creating and expanding work-based learning opportunities.

In Washington, for example, the 2019 Workforce Education Investment Act authorized $25 million in dedicated state funding to operate initiatives that support and scale work-based learning and other career-connected learning opportunities, as well as $11 million in capital and transportation funding to support these initiatives. Similarly, Massachusetts has a dedicated line-item in the annual state budget to fund high school internships and recently supported the launch of the Work-based Learning Alliance to scale accessibility to virtual work-based learning experiences. 

We need to see more state and regional innovation of this kind. Doing so will ensure that more young people have the opportunity to experiment with careers—long before they have to commit to college, an apprenticeship, or another postsecondary path. Early experience means better decisions.

Julie Lammers, is senior vice president of advocacy and corporate social responsibility at American Student Assistance, which recently put out a comprehensive work-based learning guide, “High School Work-based Learning: Best Practices Designed to Improve Career Readiness Outcomes for Today’s Youth.”

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