Work-Based Learning Jump Start

Work-based learning is a supervised program sponsored by an education or training organization that links knowledge gained at the worksite with a planned program of study. Experiences range in intensity, structure and scope and include activities as diverse as site visits, job shadowing, paid and unpaid internships, structured on-the-job training, and the more formal work status as apprentice or employee.

Work-based learning helps youth to:

  1. Gain basic workplace skills (including teamwork, communication, problem solving; customer service and social etiquette skills);
  2. Knowledge of specific occupational skills; and,
  3. An understanding of different industries in order to make informed career choices.

Work-based Learning that Works!


Research shows that quality work-based learning experiences include these characteristics:

  1. Experiences provide exposure to a wide range of work sites in order to help youth make informed choices about career selections.
  2. Experiences are age and stage appropriate, ranging from site visits and tours, job shadowing, internships (unpaid and paid), and paid work experience.
  3. Work site learning is structured and links back to classroom instruction.
  4. A trained mentor helps structure the learning at the worksite.
  5. Periodic assessment and feedback is built into the training.
  6. Youth are fully involved in choosing and structuring their experiences.
  7. Outcomes are clear and measurable.

The Value

Employers value work-based learning because the competencies acquired are those that are specifically needed in the workplace. Its worth is widely recognized. For example, many professions, such as health and education professionals, require completion of an internship in order to receive a degree and/or a professional credential. While work experiences are beneficial to all youth, they are particularly valuable for youth with disabilities. For youth with disabilities, one of the most important research findings show that work experience during high school (paid or unpaid) helps them get jobs at higher wages after they graduate. Unfortunately, many young people with disabilities do not have the opportunity to participate in structured high-quality programs designed to help them make informed choices about what careers they may want to pursue.

Getting It Right

Creating quality work-based learning experiences is not easy. For youth with disabilities, there are additional challenges, including a lack of opportunity for exposure to an array of career options and industry settings; insufficient staff to help youth learn how to access the necessary assistive technologies and other support services; and a concern by program staff that employers are unwilling to accept a referral for a youth with a disability, because there may be an adverse impact on performance outcomes.

Audience Answers

On these pages discover more details that help address WBL challenges and find the answers to your WBL questions. Check out the one that fits your profile:

Research Base

Work-based learning takes many forms and serves many purposes and its worth is recognized throughout the world. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has documented what various countries do in their education and job training programs to achieve the goal of smooth transition from initial education to working life. In some countries, apprenticeship programs are a core secondary education strategy, are organized through formal contracts between the employer and the student, and often last three or more years. Less formal arrangements can be found through co-op education programs, where students are placed in real jobs for a limited period of time (e.g. a semester) as a part of the program of study.

A “sampling” of the literature on contextual teaching and learning by Medrich, Calderon, & Hoachlander, (in press) found that the research was “often methodologically vague and hardly conclusive” (p. 70). However, there was some evidence that work-based learning increased student attendance, decreased dropout rates, improved student attendance, reduced suspensions, and increased student engagement in school. One study showed that students engaged in work-based learning were more likely to attend college or go to work compared to their peers. Although research relating contextual learning to academic achievement was very limited, one study indicated that work-based learning “significantly improved a student’s grade point average and attendance” (Linnehan quoted in Medrich, Calderon & Hoachlander, in press) and another found that WBL students enrolled in higher level math and science courses more often than their peers.

The research base on service-learning, while not conclusive, was somewhat larger than that on work-based learning. (Service learning is similar to work-based learning in that students work outside the classroom on community projects using work-related skills and knowledge.) Studies showed that service learning had positive impacts on student engagement and motivation, classroom attitudes and behaviors, attendance and school retention, and grades and achievement. For example, students who participated in service learning activities scored higher on grade point average than a comparison group in one study. In another study, “service learning participation was associated with higher scores on the state test of basic skills and higher grades.” (Medrich, Calderon & Hoachlander, in press, p. 69)

Benefits of Recruiting Youth with Disabilities


OECD has synthesized international common lessons that show that there is benefit in recruiting youth with disabilities to both employers and youth.

For employers it:

  1. promotes efficient recruitment;
  2. helps develop the pipeline of qualified workers; and,
  3. is a skill developer for current employees, who are the in-firm trainers and mentors.

For youth, the positive values include:

  1. facilitating job search;
  2. acquiring important generic work skills, as well as positive attitudes and habits;
  3. improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and pleasure of learning by providing opportunities for contextual and applied learning; and,
  4. depending upon its nature, developing expert skills which cannot be acquired, or not acquired as well, in the classroom. (OECD, 2000)

While work experiences are beneficial to all youth, they are particularly valuable for youth with disabilities. One of the most important findings from the research shows that work experiences for youth with disabilities during high school (paid or unpaid) helps them acquire jobs at higher wages after they graduate. Also, students who participate in occupational education and special education in integrated settings are more likely to be competitively employed than students who have not participated in such activities. (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Colley & Jamison, 1998; Luecking & Fabian, 2000; Rogan, 1997)

Unfortunately, many young people with disabilities do not have the opportunity to participate in structured high-quality programs designed to help them make informed choices about what careers they may want to pursue. (Luecking & Fabian, 2000) Youth with disabilities continue to actively struggle to achieve success in the labor market. They are frequently channeled into inadequate education for work programs because of low expectations and/or discriminatory assumptions about disability. (Fairweather & Shaver, 1990; Rojewski, 1996)

There is evidence that many youth with disabilities can be successful in quality careers needing technology-based skills if they are exposed to:

  1. settings that have high expectations of them; and,
  2. career opportunities that demand strong academic and technical know-how(NCWD/Youth, 2003).

All too often youth with disabilities are separated out into jobs in the five F’s: filing, food, flowers, filth, and folding. While there is honor in all work, there is no honor in a workforce development system and its institutions making generic assumptions that youth with disabilities are only able to perform in certain types of environments. Thus, those responsible for developing a prepared workforce that meets the needs of a technology-based economy need to help all youth prepare to contribute at the maximum level possible.

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High School/High Tech (HS/HT) Program Manual
Provides opportunity for students with disabilities to explore careers in science, mathematics and technology. The HS-HT program manual includes a chapter on work-based learning with examples, sample forms and resources.

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET)
National resources, technical assistance, and information related to secondary education and transition for youth with disabilities.

Job Accommodations Network
Information on job accommodations, modifications, and assistive technology for various disabilities.

New Ways to Work
Tools and guides for various audiences; includes a training curriculum for staff on work-based learning and a quick guide on safety and child labor laws.

Intermediary Network
Defines the role of an intermediary and includes tools for intermediaries and work-based learning implementation materials.

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Blackorby, J., & Wagner, M. (1996). Longitudinal outcomes for youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study. Exceptional Children, 62, 399-419.

Colley, D.A., & Jamison, D. (1998). Post school results for youth with disabilities: Key indicators and policy implications. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 21, 145-160.

Fairweather, J.S., & Shaver, D.M. (1990). A troubled future? Participation in postsecondary education by youths with disabilities. Journal of Higher Education, 61, 332-348.

Luecking, R., & Fabian, E. S. (2000). Paid internships and employment success for youth in transition. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 23(2), 205-221.

Medrich, E., Calderon, S. & Hoachlander, G. (In press). Contextual teaching and learning Strategies in high schools: Developing a vision for support and evaluation. In Brand, B. (Ed.), Alternative assessment and contextual teaching and learning: Essentials of high school reform. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum and the Institute for Educational Leadership.

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. (2003). High School/High Tech Program Manual. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (2000). Initial Education to Working Life: Making Transitions Work. Paris, France: Author. 95-96.

Rogan, P. (1997). Review and analysis of post-school follow-up results: 1996-1997 Indiana post-school follow-up. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Department of Education.

Rojewski, J.W. (1996). Educational and occupational aspirations of high school seniors with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 62, 463-476.

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