Work-based learning experiences can be a powerful way to help students envision themselves as professionals and make connections between what they are learning in school and the skills they will need for future jobs.
“My experience has been that it’s a very powerful engagement strategy,” said Jon Cerny, the superintendent of Bancroft-Rosalie Community Schools in rural Nebraska during an Education Week K12 Essentials Forum on March 16. His district allows every senior to spend their Fridays either doing an internship or other work-based learning experience or taking online courses.
Some students are coming away with possible job opportunities, he said. “We’ve had students at hospitals where the doctors or nurses are [asking] ‘When are you going to graduate? We want you to come back.’”
The experiences also help students better understand how their coursework will matter in the working world. “I’ve had students in manufacturing who said, ‘Now I understand why I took geometry,’” Cerny said. Once students see those connections, they “work harder in those classes, because now they understand the importance it’s going to have in their real life work.”
Internships can also help students figure out what careers they want to pursue and which ones to shy away from, Beth Benson, the workforce development coordinator for the New Albany and Union County school districts in Mississippi, said during the forum. Her two districts allow more than 70 students to do a 100-hour summer internship in a field that interests them, covering their pay of $8.50 an hour.
“One of our girls went to work at the department of human services. She thought she wanted to be a social worker,” Benson said. “And after just one day, she was like, ‘please, let me do something else.’ And I’m like ‘it does take a special person to be a social worker. And I’m glad you didn’t just spend four years going to college getting that degree and realizing after that you don’t like it.’ That was a win.”
Benson’s advice to districts that want to start their own work-based learning programs: It’s OK to start small. Her program went from 13 participating students to more than 70 in about five years, she said.
Educators should also realize it’s not a problem to pull a student out of an internship if it is not going well, she said. “We don’t want to let the business down because two years from now we might want to place another kid that will be wonderful there.” But she conceded “it might be a hard lesson for that child to get pulled out of their internship.”
Cerny emphasized that it doesn’t make sense to encourage only students who aren’t planning to go to college to get on-the-job training in high school, Cerny said.
After all, he explained, even when employers are hiring for positions that require post-secondary education, they would rather take on workers who have had some hands-on experience in their field, even if it was through a high school internship.
“I think people are starting to come to the realization that vocational or career technical education isn’t just for some kids, it’s for all kids,” Cerny said.