Triptychs: Work-Based Learning Models

young entrepreneurs in a coffee shop

TIP’s Triptychs series features three examples that, when brought together, illuminate a subject of interest to our clients, partners, and colleagues.

Schools have always sought to prepare tomorrow’s workforce in today’s classrooms. But as technology rapidly advances—and workplaces adapt to keep up—a mismatch has grown between the skills that students graduate with, and those that employers need. Without action, this skills gap will affect the talent pipeline in major sectors for years to come. For example, the Manufacturing Institute estimates that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled by 2030 due to a lack of qualified workers. Work-based learning is a strategy that could help bridge this gap.

The work-based learning framework allows students to engage with the work world through school. First, young students explore potential careers through guest speakers, job fairs, and workplace tours. As they progress, schools and employers work together to help students gain a deeper understanding of a career. This might be accomplished through informational interviews, mentorship, job shadowing, and even paid work experiences like internships. Schools also invite employers to inform curriculum, so the classroom experience reflects how the job really gets done.

With work-based learning, businesses benefit from students who already have foundational industry knowledge and are trained on their systems, processes, and equipment. Students receive career guidance, strengthen their soft skills, and make professional connections as they work toward graduation. Students also get to see how theory is actually applied through hands-on-learning opportunities. Finally, schools benefit from fostering stronger relationships with employers and building a reputation for producing well-prepared alumni.[1]

Integrating education with industry requires high levels of coordination and funding. And because implementation happens at the state and local level, access to quality programs can vary widely. Fortunately, there are many successes we can learn from.

Lytle High School (Texas) and Jolly Roger Coffee Co.

According to the Center for American Progress, 79 percent of high school students are interested in work-based learning, but only one-third are aware of any opportunities. Schools like Lytle High in the San Antonio area are taking action to build these opportunities on their campuses. In a rural school district serving 1,740 students, Lytle High School made waves when they opened an onsite coffee shop. At the Jolly Roger Coffee Co., culinary arts and special education students learn about how to run a small business as they earn credit toward their high school diploma. Due to the program’s student diversity, the Texas A&M University Center on Disability and Development granted the Jolly Roger Coffee Co. $10,000 to help expand operations.

Portland Community College (Oregon) and Vigor International

In 2008, leading regional shipbuilder Vigor International (Vigor) needed maritime welders, and Portland Community College (PCC) wanted to supply them–so they formed a partnership. That year, Vigor opened a 4,000-square-foot training center at one of its facilities in north Portland where PCC welding technology students are taught by professionals on a real worksite. The program has provided many Portland residents, including first-generation college students and previously incarcerated individuals, with the opportunity to land union jobs at Vigor and elsewhere. It has also served as the foundation for other industry partnerships. For example, with investment from Union Pacific and state grants, PCC built a mobile training center to bring the welding classroom to students and communities, helping them pass tests and earn their associate’s degrees. This past spring, the maritime welding program graduated 21 students and was recognized by the US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration as a Center of Excellence for Domestic Maritime Workforce Training and Education.

SkillsUSA and Industry-Focused Student Events

SkillsUSA is the largest workforce and skills development organization for students in the nation. With over 380,000 student and professional members, SkillsUSA offers resources, scholarships, and other support to young people as they seek career-building opportunities in sectors like the skilled trades.  Every year, SkillsUSA puts on the National Leadership & Skills Conference—gathering top employers from industries such as transportation and logistics, manufacturing, construction, healthcare, and aviation—to connect students with career advice and internships. The highlight of the conference is the SkillsUSA Championships, where six thousand of the best trades students from each state go for gold in 115 skills and leadership events, from performing a compelling speech to building a code-compliant structure in two days. Industry leaders even help create rubrics and judge the competition to ensure that students can meet modern industry standards. The stated philosophy behind the championships is to “reward students for excellence” and “keep classroom training relevant to employers’ needs,” which gets right to the heart of work-based learning. The skills gap is wide, but bridging it is crucial for preparing tomorrow’s workforce. Work-based learning initiatives are a promising step in the right direction. By building intentional partnerships between schools and employers, students can gain essential skills and become jobsite-ready, even before they graduate

[1] The Kansas State Department of Education has great digital resources for learning more about the types of activities under the work-based learning umbrella, including a reference guide.

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