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Employers in School-to-Work Programs Surveyed

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Many small firms are already providing paid work experiences for students, according to a study scheduled to be released next month.

The study's findings conflict with the assumption of most experts, who have predicted that one of the biggest challenges in creating school-to-work programs will be in recruiting enough small employers to participate.

The report, by Joan Wills and Irene Lynn of the Institute for Educational Leadership, was based on interviews with 245 employers in six cities who already participate in school-to-work programs.

The employers were recruited by 18 high schools in Atlanta; Indianapolis; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and York/Harrisburg, Pa. Most of them hired youths as part of cooperative-education programs that provide students with academic credit for part-time work related to their vocational field.

More than half of the participating firms surveyed had 50 or fewer employees. Almost one-quarter said they used the students to fill part-time jobs, although they did not specify whether the students had displaced existing workers.

In addition, 90 percent of those interviewed "somewhat'' or "strongly'' agreed that the students were productive workers. Some 40 percent said they broke even on the arrangement, which generally paid students the minimum wage.

Ms. Wills, the director of the Center for Workforce Development at the I.E.L., said the findings have "profound implications'' for creating school-to-work programs that serve large numbers of students.

'Going to Scale'

"We can't talk about going to scale without addressing some of the gaps on the employer-network side,'' Ms. Wills argued. "This cannot be a happenstance.''

For example, although most of the schools surveyed said they had worksite-learning plans for the students, almost half the employers were not aware of such plans.

"We have not spent the time necessary to think through what that learning process needs to be about at the worksite,'' Ms. Wills said.

Given the large number of small employers, she suggested, the assistance of industry-based associations will be needed to help develop quality work-based curricula that can be used across firms.

Such planning would also help insure that students learn skills that are portable across industries or state boundaries, she said.

'Little Islands'

The study found that the bulk of participating employers--65 percent--were concentrated in the retail and services industries.

There were almost no job placements for students in agriculture, utilities, transportation and communications, or public administration.

If work-based-learning opportunities are to be available for students across the full spectrum of jobs, "It can't be done based upon a half-time teacher just waiting for the employer to call the school,'' Ms. Wills said. "And that's basically what we found.''

Irene Lynn, who helped conduct the study while on sabbatical from the U.S. Labor Department, said most of the programs remained small, even after years of operation, and were given a low priority at the school site.

Usually, one person at the school was responsible for administering the programs--from recruiting employers to monitoring the quality of the job placements--as one of several duties.

In addition, Ms. Lynn said, the work-site programs "tended to be little islands unto themselves, even if the school had several other occupational programs.''

The study, which was sponsored by the I.E.L. and the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce at the University of Pennsylvania, is now under review. It is scheduled to be released next month.

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