Work-Based Learning Strategies: A Critical Resource to Getting Your Region Back to Work


In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, American workers are being displaced in record numbers. They need help navigating the muddy landscape of the new economy and workforce. As Workforce Development Boards and employers partner across the country, we continue to see work-based learning (WBL) initiatives and funding reemerging as critical regional strategies to help the millions of people who are struggling to start or advance in their careers.

Effective, work-based learning strategies build a bridge between learning and real work experiences. WBL helps learners foster an appreciation for, and familiarity with, the workplace, develops critical skills, and establishes professional networks. It creates a clear pipeline of talent for employers and makes them partners in developing the skills our workforce needs.

In this blog, you will learn more about work-based learning and why it’s important for your region, benefits of effective WBL strategies, different types of WBL initiatives, and finally, how successful partnerships can be developed between stakeholders.

What is Work-Based Learning?

Work-based learning (WBL): activities that occur in workplaces through which youth and adults gain the knowledge, skills, and experience needed for entry or advancement in a particular field. The work experience is supplemented with instruction and activities that apply, reinforce, refine, or extend the learning that occurs during work, so that learners develop attitudes, knowledge, skills, and habits that might not develop from work experience alone.

When done well, WBL is an effective way for youth and adults to explore careers, connect with businesses, learn about the functions of an organization, and understand the relevance of their education.

Why is WBL Important?

Well-designed work-based learning opportunities provide participants with occupational and work readiness training while also providing necessary income support for disconnected and at-risk individuals. These opportunities help youth and adults make the connection between academic principles and real world applications.

What are the Benefits of Work-Based Learning?

WBL creates opportunities for employers and schools to provide structured learning experiences to develop workplace readiness, technical and life skills. Through work-based learning experiences, educational programs become more relevant and rewarding for students, parents, educators, and employers. When the academic curriculum is made up of a customized mixture of projects, applied textbooks, and digital resources, successful participant completion is high. Besides being an integral component of a good educational experience, work-based learning is essential to developing a region’s future workforce.

In an article by Rand Corporation Research Organization, there is strong evidence of the benefits of WBL as graduates of applied occupational programs reported applied learning experiences such as WBL as being the most helpful in developing work skills. On the employer side, there are benefits as well. WBL programs like internships and apprenticeships (which we’ll discuss later) often serve as a workforce pipeline for companies as many employers participating in WBL programs can train students and then hire them upon graduation

Who is Involved in Work-based Learning?

The successful design and implementation of work-based learning requires collaboration among a range of workforce, industry, and education stakeholders.

WBL creates opportunities for employers and program leaders to provide structured learning experiences to develop workplace readiness, and technical and life skills. It is a process that allows participants to learn about career exploration, business connections, learning about the functions of an organization, and understanding the relevance of their education. Work-based learning experiences are activities that involve actual work experience or that connect classroom learning to employment and careers.

Effective work-based learning is usually facilitated by trained, qualified, and credentialed professionals. Partner non-profits or human service agencies may similarly employ career development staff, employment professionals, job placement specialists or internship coordinators to help participants reach their learning goals.

What are Some Best Practices for Work-based Learning Educational Strategies?

  1. Early assessment: formal skill assessment and informal interest determination are both important to individualize a work-based learning program. Tests like ACT WorkKeys can be useful. An assessment baseline at the beginning aids in the process of career development and program evaluation. We often utilize our Skilldex as an effective skill assessment tool.
  2. Mentoring: building student identity is key to postsecondary success. Mentor discussion opportunities–in person and online–are crucial to building confidence, workplace skills, and career awareness.
  3. Postsecondary credential: the goal of work-based learning is meaningful employment, and often a credential with value in the field (e.g., technical certificate, associate degree). Some high school work-based programs allow students to earn a job certificate and/or college credit toward a degree or other credential.
  4. Mapping: aligning the program to college credit requirements allows students to maximize dual enrollment credits. Programs should also be aligned with job certificates in high demand job clusters. Skill maps should be updated at least every other year
  5. Leadership development: stakeholders should have the opportunity to spend time with industry partners exploring work-based competencies, cultures, and expectations.

WBL is an Effective Tool for Businesses.

The benefit of being able to try out an employee is a low-stakes way to see if they are a good fit and eliminates making a big investment up front. Wages are subsidized by various federal and local funding sources, which is also very helpful for small businesses.

What are the Types of WBL?

WBL takes several forms, some of which are highlighted below.

On-the-Job Training (OJTs)
This is a formal designation for a work experience developed through a jobs program such as WIOA or TANF. The American Job Center vets candidates and the employer can interview them before agreeing to hire them for a pre-determined amount of time, like maybe eight weeks. For an OJT, workers get paid while they learn on the job, and the businesses don’t need to invest a lot in locating and training people who don’t work out. If an individual does well in an OJT, it’s strongly implied the employer will hire the individual when it’s over.

Paid Work Experiences
This is typically a lower-level experience than an OJT. It’s a pre-determined length of time, say 6 weeks, and there is no expectation that the employer will hire the individual afterward. The goal is to get the individual hands-on experience in a work place setting, so they can practice getting to work on time, being reliable, communicating well, etc. These individuals often have very little, to no experience in a formal work setting.

This is a formal designation for a high-level, long-term (multi-year) work experience in the trades that results in getting a license and becoming a plumber, electrician, carpenter, pipefitter, etc. Many apprenticeship programs are run through trade unions and businesses. Some schooling/classroom work at the community college level is usually a prerequisite. Many apprentices make above average wages and often have full benefits. American Job Centers provide lots of information on how to help people pursue apprenticeships. For more direction, read this previously published blog.

AJC’s most commonly arrange “pre-apprenticeships,” which is a training/WBL solution designed to get individuals into a formal, registered apprenticeship (at that point, they’re out of the AJC system). A pre-apprenticeship helps individuals with barriers to employment get up to speed with the skills they need to be successful in a formal apprenticeship. EDSI’s industry-specific boot camps have many elements of a pre-apprenticeship program. A high-level overview of a pre-apprenticeship framework is laid out here.

This option is typically for college students or individuals in WIOA/TANF Youth programs. Many EDSI-run programs offer paid work experience plus extra activities to shore up participants’ soft skills. Youth may be in-school or out-of-school, or studying for a GED. An internship is usually in a field that corresponds with what the student is studying in school.

NC Region Spotlight: Cape Fear Youth Work-based Learning Program

WBL can provide a well-rounded method of building a person’s drive and professional development as they prepare for a stable and satisfying career, as demonstrated below.

Over the course of 2 years, EDSI's North Carolina region worked with community partner TRU Colors and provided 7 participants with a work-based learning experience in their specialized training boot camp where they were exposed to a wide scope of career field interests like Human Resources, Project Management, Social Media Marketing, Brewery, Finance Management and Territory Mapping. After completion of the 8-week training, all 7 participants were placed into full-time positions.

“One of our participants, Edward Green, was able to learn social media marketing, leadership and project management during his 8-week training with TRU Colors and is now working full time there in the Marketing Department as a Lighting Specialist. These are the types of success stories we know all regions are aiming for and with supportive and forward-thinking community stakeholders, the strategic collaboration that happens is inspiring.” -- Patrick Buford, EDSI Regional Director of Operations

We are committed to creating successful regional partnerships with local workforce boards to support jobseekers and clients.

Reach out to us if you’d like to partner or hear more about how to develop strong WBL programs in your region.

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