Entering the job market is tough for first-timers. More and more, employers are seeking applicants with real-world experience, not just an education. Research from Burning Glass has found that 40 percent of college graduates are underemployed in their first job, and two-thirds are likely to still be underemployed five years later.

But in a report just released, NAF—a national network of education, business, and community leaders—says expanding work-based learning in high school can help counteract that trend.

The report cites studies showing that developing in-demand workforce skills before entering the job market can add up to 20 percent to a college graduate’s earnings and give students who have had a high school internship a greater advantage when looking for a college internship or full-time job.

Colleen Devery, VP, NAF (Photo: NAF)

Work-based learning is beneficial on many other levels as well, according to Colleen Devery, Vice President, Strategy, for NAF, whose mission is to ensure high school students are college, career, and future ready.

“Students are given exposure to the workplace, to careers they might not have considered, to all the opportunities that are out there in a way that they can really start to envision their futures. And then it gives them a lot of practical experience meeting and talking with adults, thinking about their own and planning for their own choices and careers and college,” says Devery.

“A lot of experience in the workplace, especially if they’re able to have a paid internship there, they’re building practical experience that they can go and then leverage into their next experience.”

Developing successful work-based learning programs

The report highlights five policy strategies that can help states, cities, and communities develop successful work-based learning programs.

“We looked at policies all across the country that were supporting schools and employers and communities in being able to increase the opportunities that they were able to create for students,” Devery tells WorkingNation. “And we found a couple of types of strategies that were really working in a lot of places and we tried to highlight things that were replicable from place to place.”

This first is to leverage existing funding and mechanisms. Incentivize government contractors to encourage, or even require, vendors to engage in work-based learning via internships, job shadow days or student mentoring programs. Providing tax credits as a reward for businesses that implement work-based learning programs is another option.

State and local governments can also utilize federal incentives to encourage both student and business participation. Local agencies can hire high school interns for their offices and facilities, something that can be especially effective in rural areas where there are fewer employers.

Devery cites Los Angeles as one city in which this mechanism has been successful.

“The L.A. Unified School District put into their vendor requirements that each vendor had to participate in providing high-quality work-based learning opportunities for LAUSD students. So, they’re harnessing the billions of dollars of purchasing power that they have to create these opportunities for students. And it’s not adding new funding but really providing the incentive for employers to be able to step up.”

Creating a strong infrastructure

Building a work-based learning infrastructure is the second policy. Developing and sharing guidelines, providing technical assistance or establishing funding programs are some of the things states, cities, counties and community groups can do. Partnering with local businesses and chambers of commerce to create internships and apprenticeships has been effective. The report says it’s also important for schools to set higher goals for workplace learning, as well as align their credential programs with the job opportunities created by employer demand.

“Even when you have employers who are ready and you have the students that have been prepared, there’s a lot of coordination necessary,” according to Devery. “So, this is where we’re really identifying some strategies that communities have put in place to support those work-based learning coordinators.”

Accountability and motivation

The third policy strategy is to include work-based learning and paid internships in state and local education accountability programs. It’s a fiscally neutral way to encourage schools to focus on career preparedness. It also ensures monitoring of which student populations may or may not be getting access to opportunities.

School districts also should measure and incentivize work-based learning and internships as part of their evaluation of school quality and student preparedness and incorporate the experiences in high school graduation requirements.

“State and local officials have a lot of influence on what happens in high schools, both in terms of how they measure success for schools and how they reward students and measure success in terms of graduation requirements,” Devery notes. “So, this is another place where we see a lot of opportunity to incentivize the kind of activities that they really hope will happen and have been proven to be successful, like work-based learning.”

Don’t take the summer off

Expanding and aligning summer youth employment programs is the fourth policy. As of August 2019, the unemployment rate for 16-19-year-olds was 12.6 percent. The overall rate sits at 3.7 percent. Connecting local businesses to students looking for summer jobs is one way to lower the youth unemployment rate and set students onto an early career path.

“Having a paid work experience and building that experience while you’re young really has a lot of effects later on. And summer employment programs are a great way to scale up paid internships, and lots of cities are really putting some innovative programs in place to do that,” says Devery.

“One that I love is in Detroit where they’re building a program where students can participate over multiple years and they get more sophisticated work experience as they progress through the program. So, they come in and are connected with employment training that focuses on career readiness skills. And then once they have those skills, they can get summer jobs and build up to more internships with more kinds of responsibility.”

Finding the funding

Finally, and perhaps most challenging, the report calls for the creation of local funding initiatives through ballot initiatives or direct enactment. It cites municipal parcel taxes in Oakland and Miami-Dade County as successfully leading to the creation of work-based learning programs.

At the state level, budget line items, grants, and subsidies have helped get high school and college students get hired for internships and apprenticeships.

“When the community has the will to really understand that these are the experiences that not just provide great opportunity for the young people, but enrich their community and their community’s economic vibrancy, it pays back dividends.”

The NAF mission

Since 1980, NAF has partnered with high-need communities by implementing NAF academies which are small learning communities within high schools.

Six-hundred-twenty academies nationwide focus on growing industries including finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, engineering, and health sciences. More than 100,000 students will attend during the 2019-2020 school year.

Sixty-nine percent of NAF students are black or Hispanic. Sixty-nine percent are low-income. Forty-seven percent are female. In 2019, NAF academies reported 99 percent of seniors graduated with 86 percent of graduates planning to attend college.

“NAF really works on bringing together business people, educators, and community leaders to provide pathways for students through high school into great careers,” according to Devery. “So, it really engages them while they’re in high school, through a career-oriented curriculum in a particular field. And then lots of work-based learning experiences, including we hope a paid internship. And that has a lot of great effects academically on students.”

NAF is proud of its accomplishments. “Now students are more likely to graduate on time, particularly for students who have one or more academic ‘at risk’ factors that predict that they might not graduate on time. And then it has great opportunities for them to develop networks of the adults and business people who really invested in their future and can help guide them through a post-secondary credential and into the workforce.”

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California expands successful apprenticeship program

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