Strengthening Work-Based Learning Systems Through Intermediaries

This is part two of a three-part series on the CCRS Center’s State Work-Based Learning Initiative.

Work-based learning (WBL) provides students the opportunity to learn academic and technical content and apply it to real-world experiences while promoting the development of crucial employability skills—skills that students can apply to any profession, such as technology use, problem solving, and communication—that can be demonstrated from day one on the job. Quality WBL experiences require an alignment between classroom content and instruction and industry needs and expectations. However, according to Marjorie Cohen, Senior Technical Assistance Consultant at the College and Career Readiness and Success (CCRS) Center, “one of the biggest challenges that schools have is how to approach and engage employers.” This is where intermediaries—entities (individuals or organizations) that support WBL or other career development activities for students—come into play.

Intermediaries perform a vital role in bridging schools and employers. They often assume a host of functions, such as facilitating communication between schools and employers, identifying and supporting WBL placement opportunities, supporting employers in mentoring student workers, supporting students in understanding employer needs, and providing programmatic administrative assistance. There are two common types of intermediaries: third-party organizations and WBL coordinators. Third-party organizations operate within existing entities, such as a chamber of commerce, local Workforce Investment Board, industry association, or community college, while WBL coordinators are usually individuals located within a school or a district. Below are brief summaries of intermediaries that promote WBL systems through statewide operations, industry associations, and WBL coordinators.

Examples in Practice

The Iowa Intermediary Network supports 15 regional WBL intermediaries that are administered by community colleges located within distinct regions across the state. The Iowa Intermediary Network connects businesses and schools, and facilitates job shadowing opportunities, internships, and additional workplace learning opportunities for students based on local industry demand (such as in STEM subjects or targeted industries). As of 2017, the Intermediary Network had collaborated with almost 3,000 businesses. In the 2017–2018 school year, the Intermediary Network addressed key barriers in WBL, such as student transportation to WBL placements, liability insurance, and appropriate licensing of WBL coordinators.

Apprenticeship Carolina, part of South Carolina’s SC Technical College System, functions as a statewide intermediary, employing consultants who reach out to different regions in the state. These consultants help businesses register apprenticeship programs with the U.S. Department of Labor, acting as guides throughout the entire registration process, and facilitate student recruitment. Currently, 32 out of 46 South Carolina counties participate in the provision of youth apprenticeships.

The Boston Private Industry Council (PIC), Boston’s Workforce Development Board and an intermediary organization, reviews current industry needs and provides professional advancement opportunities for youth and adults in Boston. It is a “school-to-career intermediary” that “convenes multi-sector collaborations, connects employers with schools and students with jobs and internships, [and] measures progress on key indicators.” In the summer of 2017, the PIC directly placed 1,574 students within WBL internships and jobs.

Georgia offers professional development to its in-school WBL coordinators through the CTAE Education Resource Network (CTAERN). CTAERN is a consortium that supplies instructional resources, professional learning, data support, and communication assistance to “meet the Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) instructional career development needs of Georgia educators.” Outcomes for the 2017–2018 school year include the production of 230 workshops for more than 7,000 attendees.

Considerations for Developing Robust Intermediary Networks

Approaching employers to foster WBL can be a daunting activity for school leaders who already have strenuous workloads. Intermediaries can be a key player in communicating and fostering relationships between schools and businesses. As states, districts, and schools expand WBL opportunities to more students, stakeholders must consider best practices for designing intermediaries. Below are a few considerations for states as they design and improve intermediaries to reinforce their WBL systems.

Statewide Framework: A statewide framework to assist states in developing WBL intermediaries can be beneficial. The CCRS Center is currently developing a resource to support states in establishing robust intermediary systems through a self-assessment of five core elements: infrastructure, capacity building, stakeholder engagement and communication, alignment, and monitoring and feedback. These elements can help define the roles and responsibilities of the intermediary; support the implementation of WBL based on the specific context; improve collaboration with stakeholders; align policies, initiatives and funding; and outline a process for collecting and analyzing data on the impact of WBL intermediaries—which is further expanded on below through an accountability lens.

Intermediary Accountability: Although various intermediaries, including those mentioned above, have employed some type of performance measure, such as tracking the number of participants, participating regions, direct student placements, and beneficiaries, Cohen remarks that “the monitoring, measuring, and feedback of WBL [intermediaries] in general is pretty nascent [and] there are few states that have been collecting any data on intermediaries.” More robust data collection activities can expand the knowledge base on intermediaries to more accurately determine best practices for encouraging WBL.

Local Autonomy: States, regions within a state, and districts vary in their available industries, labor market needs, and workforce demands. Therefore, ensuring a place for local decision-making in the design of intermediaries is important. Local influence can help develop the local talent pipeline and benefit the local economy, as stated by the NYS P-TECH initiative in New York State. The level of operational control can have an impact on funding agreements, especially when the economic and workforce development regions, school districts, and community college service areas’ boundaries are not contiguous. Because of this misalignment of boundaries, keeping control at the local level while aligning the different systems and jurisdictions can facilitate WBL opportunities as well as encourage joint funding of WBL efforts among the parties concerned to promote interest in developing WBL opportunities, as stated by the Committee for Economic Development.

Intermediaries foster connections between schools and employers. Developing a statewide framework to support states in establishing WBL intermediaries, holding intermediaries accountable through data collection and evaluation, and supporting local autonomy and decision making can improve the effectiveness of intermediaries in promoting WBL.

Rebecca Lavinson is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.

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