Work-Based Learning and Continuing Education: Connecting the K-12 Classroom to Real LifeEdward Abeyta | Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Director of Pre-Collegiate and Career Preparations Programs, UC San Diego
The next generation must be ready to transition into the workplace or their jobs will go to someone else — in many cases, someone well-trained and in a far-off country. It is no secret the competition for jobs has expanded globally. While each of these statements might seem disquieting in nature, each is true, and each re-emphasizes the necessity and urgency of preparing our graduates for successful transition into the global workforce. Our students’ competitive edge may rest in secondary and post-secondary institutions offering work-based learning programming that connects their learning to real life.
So, what is work-based learning? It is an educational strategy that links school-based instruction with real-life experiences in the workplace. It is a planned program of job training and work experiences such as job shadowing, informational interviews and workplace tours, as well as workplace mentoring. Additionally, programs could add components providing students with work experience through apprenticeships, volunteer work, service learning, school-based enterprises, on-the-job training and paid employment.
Brennan and Little note that work-based learning has increasingly become an area of interest for the continuing education sector. It has evolved into a means to support the personal and professional development of students who are already participating in the labor market, and the focus of the learning and development tends to be on the student’s workplace activities.
Connecting learning to the workplace is nothing new in continuing education. In fact, it is common practice for continuing education institutions to develop training, courses and certificate programs based on input from industry professionals and company advisory boards. The result of this collaborative effort is relevant training for industry employees and a means for individuals to break into new or emerging jobs. Given the bond between continuing education and industry, it makes sense for educators across the teaching space — both in K-12 schools and in undergraduate institutions — to collaborate with the seasoned professionals in continuing education to bridge learning in the classroom to the real world.
Early work-based learning experiences can help students build crucial job-keeping skills, or soft skills. Many employers report that they want employees who are eager to learn, show respect and take their job commitment seriously. While jobs in today’s economy require that employees be able to solve problems, use technology and be proficient in reading, writing, math and speaking skills, it is the soft skills that seem to make the difference in whether or not an employer hires and keeps someone on the job. Specifically, employers want employees who display positive social skills including a strong work ethic, tolerance, self-discipline, self-respect, a friendly demeanor and reliability.  This is not a secret to other countries that face the same challenge of developing the next generation of talent.
Countries throughout the world are taking advantage of work-based learning to effectively train their future employees. Many countries have developed systematic policies for integrating young people into the workforce. Germany uses an apprenticeship (work-based learning) system that begins early and combines classroom and on-the-job instruction. In Japan, many employers agree to hire students referred to them by specific schools. Various organizations, administrative agencies and policies in the United States encourage work-based learning; however, the variance in the number of students participating in work-based learning and the quality of these programs differs from state to state, even from school district to school district.
High-quality work-based learning requires students to have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the experiences offered and to reflect thoughtfully on their learning. It requires educators to link experiences to the classroom and to work closely with employers and communities to ensure students comprehend the standards to which they will be held as adults in the working world. Organizational structures and resources, instructor preparation and employer engagement strategies must be aligned to facilitate this form of high-quality learning.
So what are the benefits of work-based learning to students and educators? According to Rob Atterbury with the California Center for College and Career, students who participate in work-based learning connected to their school programs:
- Show improved academic achievement.
- Realize the relevance of their education and apply acquired knowledge in a meaningful way.
- Have the opportunity to explore career options before selecting a college major.
- Increase self-confidence.
- Acquire real workplace experience and employability skills.
- Connect with an adult role model and mentor, who provides employment support and could potentially lead to employment in the future.
- Are more likely to go on to some type of educational training after high school.
As states explore ways to improve post-secondary student outcomes, work-based learning may factor significantly among the solutions. For this reason, it merits ongoing investigation and investment.
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 John Brennan and Brenda Little, “Towards a Strategy for Workplace Learning: Report of a study to assist HEFCE in the development of a strategy for workplace learning,” Centre for Higher Education Research & Information, 2006, available from http://oro.open.ac.uk/6437/1/towardsastrategyrd09_06.pdf
 Christine D. Bremer and Svjetlana Madzar, “Encouraging employer involvement in youth apprenticeship and other work-based learning experiences for high school youth.” Journal of Vocational and Technical Education, Vol 12(1), Fall 1995. Available from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JVTE/v12n1/bremer.html
Author Perspective: Administrator