Work-based learning is successful

Published 8:40 am Wednesday, August 5, 2015

By State Rep. Alan Baker

When did you realize that you’d found the career that was right for you? Did you go down a few dead-end paths first — jobs that taught you more about what you didn’t want to do for the rest of your life?
Even if those early experiences didn’t pan out, you probably learned a lot about the workplace: how to handle your boss, how to communicate with team members, or what motivates you to do a good job, for example.

What if today’s students had more — and better — work-based learning opportunities, designed as steps along a pathway from school through college and into careers? High-quality work-based learning helps young people understand their strengths and interests, see careers first-hand and make realistic decisions about their futures.

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Eighth- and ninth-graders can begin exploring potential careers through job shadowing and field trips. High school students might work in paid and unpaid internships, school enterprises or service learning. After graduation, apprenticeships and employer learn-and-earn programs teach students specialized technical skills. Colleges and employers work together on co-op and internship programs for students. Along the way, mentors show young people how to solve real-world problems, cultivate professional skills and shoulder adult responsibilities.

The report of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Commission on Career and Technical Education calls for more of these high-quality work-based learning opportunities for students, more intentionally aligned with what students learn in high school and postsecondary study. I was privileged to serve on this Commission last year and learned that this will require a new level of collaboration among schools, colleges, employers, industry organizations and communities.

Many employers question whether educators understand what skill sets are needed for the job opportunities out there. And schools worry about the quality of students’ learning experiences in the workplace.
How do we bring the two together? Here are some ideas from Alabama and other states.

The SREB Commission report cites Alabama’s House Bill 384 as one way to foster collaboration between education and industry. It encourages employers to invest in training in their industries by offering state income tax credits of 50 percent for donations to dual-enrollment scholarships. Businesses and individuals can designate up to 80 percent of their donations to training programs in specific career fields.

South Carolina takes this a step further to create more apprenticeship opportunities for students. Businesses can receive a state tax credit of $1,000 per apprentice per year for four years. South Carolina targets seven industry clusters important to the state.

In some cases, employers are taking the lead in developing career pathways that align with postsecondary programs and workforce needs. Toyota partnered with the Kentucky Community & Technical College System to develop an advanced manufacturing technician program that leads from the middle grades and high school to associate, bachelor’s and graduate degrees. The company, the schools and the colleges came together to make it happen.

Here are some of the actions the SREB report recommends to encourage employers to partner with schools and colleges for work-based learning:

• Offer employers state or local tax credits to cover part of student-trainee salaries as well as a portion of the time employers spend training or mentoring students.

• Include work-based learning in state economic and workforce development initiatives for business expansion or relocation.

• Develop policies with insurers, workforce commissions and other agencies to protect students and employers. Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation system, for example, covers students in unpaid work-based learning. Kentucky formed an agreement with a temporary employment agency that hires and assumes liability for 16- and 17-year-old paid interns.

• Leverage the resources of workforce development agencies, nonprofit organizations and chambers of commerce.

In a recent poll, two-thirds of parents agreed that high school students should complete at least one volunteer experience or paid internship before graduation. Nearly 90 percent said they want their children to learn more about career options earlier.

Let’s work together to make that happen for more young people in Alabama.

State Rep. Alan Baker devoted 27 years to public education in Alabama as a teacher and coach. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2006. He was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley to serve on the Southern Regional Education Board upon which he recently served on the special Commission for Career & Technical Education. Bentley also appointed Baker to serve on the Alabama Workforce Council.