Extension professionals across program areas have an opportunity to address the “skills gap” through work-based learning experiences. By learning about the skills young people need, using work-based learning as a model for engaging teens, and utilizing the suggested evaluation strategies can make the work experience a learning experience for teens.
What is work-based learning?
Work-based learning programs involve teens in practical experiences that integrate work and learning. They are real-life experiences that are structured, supervised, and evaluated. Successful programs use the experiential learning model-doing real work, reflecting on these experiences, and generalizing to future life situations. The work experiences may be paid or unpaid, but they are clearly viewed by both participants and employers as real work-that is, youth are actively engaged in producing goods or services. The focus of work-based learning is not simply on working for the sake of a having a job, but on an experience that takes into account the developmental needs of youth participants.
Why is work-based learning important?
Many of the skills needed for workforce success develop over time and must be learned through active participation. That is, youth are afforded the opportunity to learn interpersonal skills, cooperation, and teamwork by actually having to work as a team with others in the workplace. Because of their relative inexperience, the potential for youth to contribute to the workplace is often underestimated. However, studies show that work experiences can have a positive impact on both the young people and the businesses or organizations that participate hosting teens as employees in work-based learning programs.
Successful work-based learning programs empower young people to be an active participant in their future by taking control of their own learning and experiences. Given the concerns expressed about the need for young people to develop workforce skills, work-based learning is a good model for engaging teens in meaningful service to the public and developing workplace skills and competencies that they can apply now and in the future.
Benefits of Work-Based Learning
- • Make connections between real work expectations and the classroom
- • Pursue education with a greater sense of purpose
- • Interact with positive adult role models
- • Develop new skills
- • Receive feedback on their skill development
- • Experience enhanced self-concept and self-esteem
- • Expand their horizons and awareness of future work options
- • Enhance skills of their employees (e.g., learning to supervise others)
- • Realize contributions youth make to workplace
- • Give back to the community
- • Accomplish their mission
- • Meet developmental needs
- • Retain teens in their program
- • Add authenticity and relevance to the learning experiences they provide
- • Groom potential employees in their organization
Opportunities for Extension professionals
There are a variety of roles for Extension professionals to play. You may decide to plan and implement a new program designed for the express purpose of developing workforce skills (e.g., summer work programs with supervised worksite placements). Or, many existing programs have the potential to be designed and implemented as work-based learning.
Some current 4-H program delivery models lend themselves very easily to a work-based learning enhancement such as:
- • Camp Counseling
- • Service Learning
- • Teen Leadership
- • CARTEENS
- • 4-H Ambassadors
- • Junior Fair Board
Enhancing existing programs…
Value Added Concept
By viewing leadership programs from a workforce preparation lens, they can be transformed into high quality work-based learning experiences. Service-learning and volunteering uses communities to help youth develop and apply critical skills that are important in the workplace and in life in general. While many existing programs, such as camp counseling, are already high quality experiences, by viewing them through a workforce lens they can serve two purposes while still meeting the original program goals.
Growing Your Own Concept
Growing your own is a natural progression from participant to teen leader to teen employee to adult staff member. From a youth development perspective, it is a means to provide young people with increasingly challenging roles and responsibilities that can facilitate their development of important workforce skills and dispositions. From a practical standpoint, the concept makes sense as a way to address current staffing needs. It also makes sense as a way to develop future employees who have a commitment to the mission and goals of our Extension organizations.
How to Develop & Implement Your Program with Work-Based Learning in Mind
The following are practical tips and suggestions for including work-based learning principles in your programs.
- • Be deliberate and intentional – plan for and communicate your program to be a work-based learning program and communicate that clearly.
- • Set the stage – provide understandable and specific expectations to adults and teens at the very beginning of the program.
- • Provide training for adults on their roles – adults need to understand the goals of the program and understand how to facilitate learning experiences for teens.
- • Afford teens real work experiences – teens need to feel like what they are doing matters and is worthy of their being responsible.
- • Build reflection into the process –the use of the experiential learning model for work activities and experiences deepens the learning and helps to apply lessons learned to future situations. Look for ways to structure this into the work experience naturally as opposed to “special reflection time” that always relies on a facilitator.
- • Use authentic assessments/evaluations – performance appraisals, self reflection, journals, and solicited feedback all work easily into the process when a program is viewed through the work-based learning lens.
- • Remain realistic – start small in your scope and depth of the program. Build on successes in future efforts. Add a few features in subsequent programs.
Key Ingredients for Success
To be most effective, work-based learning experiences need to be preceded by work readiness activities. This foundation may be provided through other experiences, or may need to be incorporated into a work-based learning program.
Recommendations to consider when developing a work-based learning program include the following:
- • Establish partnerships for worksite placements, broadly defined. Successful workforce preparation initiatives require strong community partnerships-a collaboration of all stakeholders.
- • Ensure a strong commitment from adults serving as worksites supervisors. Whether teens are working as Jr. Fair Board members or through a paid experience with a community partner, the program will not work well as a work-based learning experience without the support of the site-based supervisor.
- • Start early. Youth age 12-15 can be highly motivated and have fewer competing interests for their time. They will require more supervision, but it can be worth the investment. Positive volunteer and service learning experiences at this age lay a solid foundation for future work experiences.
- • Have clear expectations and duties for all participants, both teens and adults.
- • Include training in youth-adult partnerships to create a level playing field, improve communication, and better understand each other’s perspectives. Both adults and teens will benefit when they are working towards a common goal and view each other as assets.
- • Include skill-building sessions to set up teen participants for success. Look for ways to integrate job skill development components into the work-based learning program. (e.g., having a session on filling out an application or writing a resume, including interviews as part of the process and providing feedback). These can be very powerful learning opportunities when skills development activities are grounded in the real-world experience as part of a work-based learning program.
- • Focus on the applied skills that will transfer from job to job. Communication, interpersonal, and problem solving skills are well supported by 4-H’s positive youth development philosophy and are increasingly being identified by employers as key skills employees need.
- • Create a structure of increasing reward and responsibility (e.g., higher level positions with special status or opportunities for select paid positions). This is a good way to build continuity into the program and to recognize achievement. Seek grant funding or partnerships to fund salaries or incentives for youth.
- • Use performance appraisal and self-assessment strategies, including reflection. Written reflections in journals, participating in performance appraisals, and facilitated group discussions help to make the work experience a learning experience. This process puts responsibilities on teens for their own learning, but gives them structure to do so.
- • Evaluate the process and the outcomes of the program. Use a variety of methods to assess the program and include formal and informal techniques, some of which may be embedded as program tools described above (e.g., performance appraisals, self-assessments, observations, and exit interviews).
- • Communicate results to stakeholders in a way that shows how young people are developing skills necessary for success in the 21st century.
- • Start small and build on success. Focus on the quality of the experience not the quantity of participants. Because work-based learning programs are time intensive experiences, they require a low ratio of adults to youth.
Workforce Preparation: Sample Programming and Evaluation Tools
The following examples were developed by state and local Extension professionals and may be adapted for other work-based learning programs.
JET Program Package (pdf) – A detailed packet of information describing the JET Program, work-based learning, the JET program experience including the interview process, orientation, training, evaluations and more.
Performance Appraisal (pdf) – To be completed by teens and supervisors at the conclusion of the work-based learning program.
Teen Self-Assessment (pdf) – To be completed by teens at the conclusion of the work-based learning program.