Supporting Career Readiness With Work-Based Learning

By 2020, 65% of all jobs will require some postsecondary education or training. But are students graduating college and career ready to meet this demand?

There is some good news but work is still needed to ensure that students are ready to seize postsecondary opportunities:

Integrating work-based learning experiences from secondary and postsecondary education is one strategy to enhance learning and provide an opportunity for students to gain critical skills for future careers. Work-based learning is a continuum of activities—both inside and outside the classroom—that affords students opportunities to connect what they are learning in the classroom to the world of work. Quality work-based learning offers students the chance to apply academic and technical knowledge to real-world settings, thereby developing crucial employability skills. Across the country, states are increasingly looking to design, scale, and implement work-based learning (including workplace experience, apprenticeships, internships, service learning, and simulations) as a strategy to improve students’ readiness for careers.

Work-based learning has the potential to improve students’ career readiness. Work-based learning has been found to help students apply and extend classroom learning, increase motivation and understanding, explore careers, and increase understanding of the work environment (Brown, 2003; Fox, 2014; Kenny, Walsh-Blair, Blustein, Bempechat, & Seltzer, 2010; Stern, Rahn, & Chung, 1998). A few correlational and quasi-experimental design studies found that participation in work-based learning had positive effects on students’ GPAs (Hollenbeck, 1996; Linnehan, 2001) and some descriptive studies found that students gain job-related skills and knowledge (Halpern, 2006; Hamilton & Hamilton, 1997; Hart Research Associates, 2013; Hughes, Moore, & Bailey, 1999; Rogers-Chapman & Darling-Hammond, 2013). Stern, Finkelstein, Urquoila, and Cagampang (1997) also found a positive association between the amount of individuals’ work experience and their earnings several years later. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor calculated that workers who completed an apprenticeship program, an intensive work-based learning experience, earned $300,000 more over their lifetimes than workers who did not.

How can we ensure that all students here in the United States have access to work-based learning experiences? Many states are considering this important question and developing more systematic approaches to ensuring that more students are ready. Indeed, states are taking lessons from other countries that have strengthened the connection between academic learning opportunities and work-based learning, which has yielded more students who are ready for careers. For example, in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, between 40% and 70% of ninth- and 10th-grade students participate in some form of work-based learning that combines classroom and workplace learning. Reports suggest that students in these countries often find it easier to transition into the labor market. For example, more than 80% of young German adults found a job within 6 months of graduation compared to only 48% in the United States (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011).

Although many states have made significant strides toward developing more comprehensive systems to ensure student readiness, there is still much to learn from state peers to develop these systems. To support state efforts, the College and Career Readiness and Success (CCRS) Center launched the State Work-Based Learning Initiative

Planned as an ongoing collaboration with state teams, the State Work-Based Learning Initiative gives states an opportunity to strengthen the connection between academic content areas and career and technical education, build cross-sector infrastructure to increase the number and quality of work-based learning opportunities available to students, and engage in peer networks to share emerging practices and strategies. The CCRS Center effort is unique in that it focuses narrowly on increasing work-based opportunities for students in high school, recognizing that this is crucial for increasing the continuum of work-based learning opportunities earlier in the K–12 education system and, later, into the postsecondary system. The initiative’s work is organized around four state peer network groups that focus on the specific priorities and needs of the participating states, promote cross-state learning, and share and develop resources. You can find the latest updates on and resources for this initiative on our website


Brown, B. L. (2003). CTE and work-based learning (ERIC Digest no 252). ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education. ED482334.

Fox, H. L. (2014). Achieving their goals: Implementing an individualized plan process to build success. Champaign, IL: Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Halpern, R. (2006). After school matters in Chicago: Apprenticeships as a model for youth programming.  Youth and Society, 38, 203–235.

Hamilton, S., & Hamilton, M. A. (1997). When is learning work-based? Phi Delta Kappan, 78(9), 676–681.

Hart Research Associates. (2013). It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hollenbeck, K. (1996). An evaluation of manufacturing technology partnership program. Technical Report No 96-007. Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Hughes, K. L., Moore, D. T., & Bailey, T. R. (1999). Work-based learning and academic skills (IEE #15). New York, NY: Institute on Educational and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Kenny, M. E., Walsh-Blair, L. Y., Blustein, D. L., Bempechat, J., & Seltzer, J. (2010). Achievement and motivation among urban adolescents: Work hope, autonomy support, and achievement-related beliefs. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77, 205–212.

Linnehan, F. (2001). The relation of work-based mentoring program to academic performance and behavior of African American students. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 59, 310–325.

Rogers-Chapman, M. F., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2013). Preparing 21st century citizens: The role of work-based learning in linked learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Stanford University.

Stern, D., Finkelstein, N., Urquoila, M. & Cagampang, H. (1997). What difference does it make if school and work are connected? Evidence on Cooperative Education in the United States. Economics of Education Review, 16(3), 213–229.

Stern, D., Rhan, M. L., & Chung, Y-P. (1998). Design of work-based learning for students in the United States. Youth Society, 29, 471–502.

Symonds, W. C., Schwartz, R. B., & Ferguson, R. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Report issued by the Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Boston, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.


I am in total agreement with the need to place emphasis on work-based training and make the learning experiences a reality for students in the adult education population as well as for the k-12 population.  We have found that many, if not most, young adults have given little or no thought to "Career" readiness.  Participants of all ages entering our programs have a difficult time completing a job interest survey, and if they do have ideas about what jobs they would like to pursue, they have limited knowledge of the skills necessary to perform effectively on that job. It is of utmost importance to include work-based learning in adult education college and career readiness instructional programs.

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