Expanding access to work-based learning

Remember shop class? If you’re under 40, you might not. Ask your parents or grandparents about it, and you’re likely to hear nostalgic tales of band saws, welding goggles, and wobbly birdhouses.

But vocational education back in the day earned another, less rosy reputation. High school teachers and counselors often encouraged — or even compelled — students of color to pursue this track, which excluded them from academic courses that might have prepared them for college or university education.

Times are changing.

Career and technical education now encompass a broad range of pathways, from agribusiness to coding. Job prospects for these students can vary widely, depending on which concentration they choose, and how many “stacked” (successively more challenging) courses they take in a given area.

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But there is another component to student success that is gaining widespread support — access to “earn while you learn” or “work-based-learning” opportunities. According to the National Skills Coalition, earn-while-you-learn programs are considered “best practice” for adult workforce development.

Opportunities for high school students to take advantage of this approach have not been as prevalent, but that is changing.

Cristo Rey Dallas is part of a network of high schools that have been demonstrating the power of incorporating work-based-learning into the curriculum for over 20 years. Students take college preparatory courses four days a week, and work at one of over 100 partner companies like EY and AT&T one day a week.

Kelby Woodard, president of Cristo Rey Dallas, says his students receive a much broader education.

Students not only earn their tuition through these placements, but they also gain even more valuable returns in the form of soft skills, references, and first-job experience.

How can more students have access to these kinds of opportunities? With the help of their local school officials.

In Texas, two bills that have bipartisan support would allow school districts and open-enrollment charter schools to reimburse employers who agree to create high quality, paid apprenticeships or internships for students. Two more bills would enable these same schools to use resources to develop career and technical education programs that are responsive to local, emerging workforce needs.

In the past, a “vo-tech” path and a “college-bound” path were distinct. Research is clear that today’s career and technical education programs are cut from a different, and better, cloth. The Texas Workforce Investment Council cites an American Educational Research Association study demonstrating that “[s]tudents who complete career and technical education (CTE) courses during their junior and senior years are, on average, more likely to graduate on time and less likely to drop out than students who do not take CTE courses.”

The National Skills Coalition predicts that 48 percent of jobs by 2024 will be middle-skill occupations. These jobs do not require a four-year degree, but do require some form of postsecondary certification, certificate, or credential.

Employers are looking for individuals with technical skills and knowledge, and even more importantly, a grasp of soft skills, such as giving and receiving feedback. Cristo Rey’s students have a head start on developing those skills; their time in the working world put them ahead of many of their peers, who might never have answered to a supervisor or learned to adapt to a corporate culture.

And Cristo Rey students gain these skills while still in high school.

Leaving high school with work experience and even industry-based certifications puts young Americans in a much better position to make choices about whether and how to pursue their postsecondary education.

Today’s high school students face a future in which they will need to be even more ready for change and adaptation in their careers than any generation before them. Expanding work-based learning in high schools will give students a head start on developing in-demand knowledge and skills.

Erin Davis Valdez is a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Innovation in Education and Right on Work.