Audience: Policymaker

Policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels—and not just those in education—must wrestle with the question of how to make the initial preparation of youth for the world of work as effective as possible, preferably during school but after high school if necessary. This is particularly true for policy makers concerned with promoting the increased employment of youth with disabilities and other at-risk groups.

Research shows that there are multiple, long-term benefits of work-based learning for young people with and without disabilities. A nominal investment in a well-planned school-to-work or transition program that includes work-based learning pays for itself many times over through additional tax revenues generated by working youth, savings on public benefits program, and opportunity costs from those programs associated with unemployed youth.

Policy makers at all three levels of government need to consider many issues when promoting and expanding work-based learning opportunities. First and foremost is the need for facts to guide their decisions. Unfortunately, much of the information about work-based learning is not organized to assist policy makers in making informed choices about how to construct and sustain high quality work-based learning opportunities for youth. Asking the right questions is a key part of the data collection process, and policy makers are encouraged to make this their first step.

Row of orange dots.


1. What are the resources available to develop a quality work-based learning infrastructure for all youth?

Creating a structure that supports young people in their preparation for work requires effort at all levels of government and across a wide array of institutions and organizations at the state and local levels. More knowledge is needed of the current capacity of the workforce development system, and the systems to which it must link to be effective. While this knowledge is being developed, there are resources that can assist in the development of a quality work-based learning system for youth.

States are in a pivotal position to develop the infrastructure for work-based learning across agencies and institutions. The state Workforce Investment Boards (SWIBs) are well positioned to document the current state of practice, as well as propose new collaborative efforts to generate a more strategic approach. Actions that states can take include:

  • Organize a listing of occupations and industries that make sense for both education and employers across all workforce development entities in the state.
  • Conduct an environmental scan to document programs, policies, and procedures that can be used to recognize and promote work-based learning across programs and agencies.
  • Convene employer organizations to generate input on how to develop and market work-based learning that will meet the needs of their memberships.
  • Convene community organizations to assess the local barriers and solutions to providing the full range of work-based learning opportunities to all youth.
  • Incorporate into state reporting systems information across institutions regarding the use and results of work-based learning opportunities.

Local Workforce Investment Boards (LWIBs), as the lead strategic planning workforce development organizations, are also well-positioned to take specific actions to promote work-based learning. Effective LWIBs have a wide variety of members and partners with whom they coordinate information—including a wide variety of service providers. Ensuring that workforce development providers are collectively making maximum use of public resources is one way they sift that information.

The role of LWIBs as intermediaries or “honest brokers” of information is not as well known or as developed as it should be. LWIBs are required to develop workforce development plans for their area or region based on solid information in order to assist customers in making informed decisions about job and training opportunities.

Questions LWIBs should be able to answer

  • Which organizations and schools offer work-based learning experiences and what youth populations do they serve?
  • For what occupations and industries are work-based learning experiences available?
  • How do the work-based learning experiences link to classroom or program content?
  • What are the program outcomes for youth?
  • Which programs provide educational credit for participation in work-based or work simulated learning?
  • Which programs lead to industry recognized licenses or certifications?
  • How the programs are organized and what kinds of workplace materials are used?
  • What are the satisfaction levels of employers and WBL participants?
  • How involved are employers in designing the WBL experiences?
  • What information and outreach services are available to expose youth (and their parents) to programs that include work-based learning?

LWIBs and their community partners should be able to:

  • more effectively use current resources;
  • develop common WBL materials (e.g. mentoring information material for employees of firms);
  • promote access to information about opportunities for use in the One-Stop centers and school counseling offices;
  • refine joint agreements and contracts to expand service to underserved groups of youth;
  • strengthen relationships with the employer community; and
  • track and report results to the key stakeholders.

Developing a quality work-based learning infrastructure for youth will address several capacity issues. Workforce development is a hit or miss process for America’s youth. Too many leave high school, either as a dropout or a graduate, with no knowledge of their career options or how to access them. Students who are labeled as “college material” are routed to college prep courses and are encouraged and assisted in the college application process. Students who are “not college material” are routed to career and technology programs or academies, if they’re available, or are ignored by the system. Those who are ignored usually spend their early employment years bouncing from one low-level, dead end job to another. After a while, if they’re lucky and have the requisite skills, they find a field they like and start to move forward on a career ladder. Much of this job market churning could be eliminated through work-based learning experiences.

Work-based learning is valuable to all youth, regardless of whether they plan to go to college upon high school graduation or not. However, this value may not be immediately apparent since it is difficult to isolate work-based learning from other school or program parameters in order to track and document it. A work-based learning infrastructure will facilitate tracking and data collection.

The infrastructure will also address the piecemeal approach to work-based learning for youth which currently exists. There is no system for sharing program materials, tracking participants and outcomes, or for supporting staff. Because of the variety of work-based learning options and the need to make the experiences age and stage appropriate for each youth, information sharing is critical. It is not uncommon for a teacher in one school to be completely unaware of what another teacher in her school is doing. Schools may have stand-alone programs that are not linked to private sector, community college programs, or the workforce development system.

Programs or schools offering work-based learning opportunities contact employers as needed to set up site visits, paid and unpaid work experiences, and so forth. If the programs or schools are not aware of each other, employers may be bombarded with requests and become less supportive. A cross-sector infrastructure would greatly facilitate coordination of employer contacts.

Row of orange dots.

2. What are some examples of effective work-based learning infrastructures and programs?

For youth in school, work-based learning is an important part of systemic school reform in a number of urban communities. In Boston, work has started on reforming high schools following years of work in elementary schools. The Boston Private Industry Council (PIC), in partnership with the Boston Public Schools, is organizing companies by industry. Employers in industries such as health care, financial services, travel and tourism, utilities, and communications provide work-based opportunities to youth. In addition, a number of Boston Public Schools serve as career academies to tie work requirements of a specific industry to academics learned in school.

Career academies are high school programs organized around an industry or occupational theme, in which a group of students stay together for several years. There are career academies for health, finance, computers, and media that enables students to fulfill requirements for college entrance, in addition to acquiring work-related knowledge and skill. Employers from the industries or occupations help develop the curriculum and provide work experiences. There are two organizations that serve as networks of career academies: the National Academy Foundation and the Career Academy Support Network for the state of California.

Second chance job training programs serve youth in the upper age ranges including drop outs, welfare recipients, and adjudicated youth, etc. They are funded through a variety of sources and frequently provide work-based learning opportunities, both paid and unpaid. Although some programs “zero in” on specific jobs and do not include time for career exploration activities, there are programs that have successfully used work experiences to meet broader social purposes. Two such programs are YouthBuild and Job Corps. Job Corps is a residential education and job training program for at-risk youth, ages 16 through 24. YouthBuild programs serve unemployed and under-educated young people ages 16-24 who divide their time between working toward their GED or high school diploma and learning skilled construction trades. Both teach workplace basic and occupation specific skills through on-the-job training.

Row of orange dots.

3. What special considerations are needed for youth with disabilities to access and succeed in quality work-based learning experiences?

Youth with disabilities need the same access and opportunities for as youth without disabilities. Unfortunately, many youth with disabilities experience profound discrimination in schools that carries over into the jobsite. Youth with disabilities are often routed to separate career education programs in school that focus on low skill, low wage jobs. They have limited exposure to the wide variety of careers available in the job market due to inadequate career exploration activities and vocational assessment resources. As a result, they are unable to access high tech high wage career and technology programs or college preparation programs.

Work-based learning experiences for youth with disabilities may be non-existent or limited in scope. This is partially due to the low expectations of school staff (and sometimes families), but also due to the fear of employers that youth with disabilities are more fragile or expensive to employ than youth without disabilities. In fact, employees with disabilities generally have better attendance rates and greater loyalty than their non-disabled peers.

It is true that youth with severe disabilities may require extra time and support to develop skills or learn how to perform a specific job function. Job site accommodations may also be needed, but these are often inexpensive “low tech” adjustments such as raising a desk or adjusting a schedule. Schedule changes, job sharing/carving and accommodations are not new to the workplace; they are done routinely for ALL individuals who comprise today's workforce, not just those who have an identified disability. The ideal scenario for work-based experiences for youth with severe disabilities would be a continuum of options ranging from a sheltered workshop, as an interim step for learning skills and work ethics, to supported employment with a job coach in an integrated work setting, to unsubsidized, competitively paid employment with natural supports. It should be emphasized that sheltered workshops, where people with disabilities are employed at substandard wages, should be a progressive learning experience and not a life sentence.

Expertise in serving youth with a range of disabilities is provided by a number of agencies including rehabilitative services administration, developmental disabilities agencies, centers for independent living, and a number of non-profit groups. Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams in schools also have expertise in working with students with disabilities. This expertise should be tapped as needed in developing work-based learning experiences for students with disabilities.

To ensure that youth with and without disabilities are included in quality work-based learning experiences, both youth groups should be included in the strategic planning processes of state Workforce Investment Boards, Local Workforce Investment Boards, youth service providers, and schools

Row of orange dots.

Research Base

Because most studies do not separate the effects of work-based learning activities from those of other program components and participant factors, it is difficult to state conclusively what part work-based learning played in the positive effects documented by the research (Wonacott, 2002). However, in his review of the literature, Wonacott (2002, page 4) stated that “it appears reasonable to say that approaches to CTE [Career and Technology Education] that integrate WBL with traditional academics typically have positive effects on students’ educational, attitudinal, and employment outcomes.” These positive effects were noted at the both secondary and post-secondary levels.

Wonacott’s findings were similar to those of Medrich, Calderon & Hoachlander (in press) who sampled the literature on contextual teaching and learning, which included work-based learning and service learning. The limited research base was not conclusive, but studies showed work-based learning and service learning had positive impacts on student engagement and motivation, classroom attitudes and behaviors, attendance and school retention, and grades and achievement.

Other researchers found positive effects on post-school outcomes. For example, in a postsecondary follow-up survey of the class of 1998, respondents were asked about the value of various high school activities in helping them to decide what kinds of careers interested or did not interest them. The most highly valued work-based learning activities appeared to be those that involved an experience tailored to the individual student. Students gave high marks to job shadowing, as well as to paid jobs and unpaid internships obtained through school. (Haimson & Bellotti, 2001)

Youth who participated in structured transition programs sponsored by schools had better attendance and were less likely to drop out. This was especially true of high risk youth. Other positive effects were that youth were prepared for college, were able to more easily define their career interests and goals for the future, did better in labor market outcomes than other high school graduates, and the jobs they obtained tended to be of higher quality than jobs they would have gotten without the structured program. (Hughes, Bailey, Mechur, 2001). This study was also part of Medrich, Calderon & Hoachlander’s literature review (in press.)

Grubb (1999) noted that the more education, the higher the salary. Higher educational levels also mean higher productivity for employers. Raising the average educational level of the workforce within an establishment by one year was associated with an increase of productivity of five percent in manufacturing and six percent in non-manufacturing establishments (Black & Lynch, 2002). Consequently, better school attendance, lower dropout rates, and better preparation for college resulting from structured exposure to the world of work will have significant effects over time.

Structured exposure to the world of work is especially important for students with disabilities. As noted in the High School-High Tech Program Manual (National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, 2003): “Substantial evidence exists to support the value of work experience as a critical educational intervention effective in improving the post-secondary employment of youth with disabilities (Blackorby & Wagnor, 1996; Colley & Jamison, 1998; Kohler, 1993; Kohler & Rusch, 1995; Luecking & Fabian, 2000; Morningstar, 1997; Rogan, 1997; Wehman, 1996).”

Since work-based learning experiences are often not available to youth with disabilities or are limited in scope, increasing those opportunities should have a positive effect on outcomes. Currently, only 27% of students in special education who complete high school are enrolled in post-secondary education compared to 68% of the general student population. And, three to five years after exiting high school, only a little more than half are found to be employed compared to 69% of their peers (Fabian, Lent & Willis, 1998).

In the United States, the number of individuals who never enter unsubsidized employment by moving from school into publicly funded income and health support programs remains stubbornly high. For example, the Social Security Administration records (2002) show that children who receive benefits are likely to continue receiving SSI for the rest of their lives. Employment rates among adults with disabilities are low, relative to non-disabled persons. A national population-based survey found that while three-fourths of all working age adults were employed, less than one-third of adults with disabilities were employed. (McNeil, 2000).

Correlates of unemployment and underemployment among individuals with disabilities include low educational attainment and lack of access to effective transition services. While there will always be a need for a range of disability benefits for some, career preparation costs considerably less than disability benefit programs, particularly if done well during the initial preparation period.

Row of orange dots.


State Career Clusters Initiative
Career Clusters link what students learn in school with the knowledge and skills they need for success in college and careers.

Boston Private Industry Council
Information on the Boston PIC’s programs including jobs, internships and other resources for youth.

The Career Academy Support Network
Resources supporting the growth and improvement of career academies around the country, including theory, research, curricula, and partnerships with employers. Housed at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley

The National Academy Foundation
Resources for career academies to support the development of America's youth toward personal and professional success--in high school, in higher education, and throughout their careers. NAF Academies represent business/school partnerships that prepare young people for future careers through a combination of school-based curricula and work-based experiences. Note: You do not need to log in to access resources.

The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act
Employment support for people with disabilities with information geared to several audiences including youth, employers, advocates, and service providers.

The High School/High Tech Program
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.

YouthBuild USA
YouthBuild USA gives low income youth the opportunity to learn skills to help build low income housing in their communities. The YouthBuild website contains information about the organization’s policy goals, program philosophy and how to start a local program.

Job Corps
Information for youth, employers, the workforce community and others on competitions, individual centers, career choices and more.

Association for Persons in Supported Employment (APSE)
Competencies, quality indicators and other information on Supported Employment. Position paper on segregated employment.

Row of orange dots.


Black, S.E. & Lynch, L.M. (2003). The New Economy and the Organization of Work, in Derek C. Jones, ed., New Economy Handbook. London, U.K.: Elsevier Science Academic Press.

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.

Fabian, E.S., Lent, R.L. & Willis, S.P. (1998). Predicting work transition outcomes for students with disabilities: Implications for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 76: 311-315.

Grubb. W. N. (1999). Learning and Earning in the Middle: The Economic Benefits of Sub-Baccalaureate Education. New York: Community College Research Center, Columbia University. (ED 431 459)

Haimson, J. & Bellotti, J. (2001). Schooling in the Workplace: Increasing the Scale and Quality of Work-Based Learning. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Hughes, K.L., Bailey, T.R. & Mechur, M.J. (2001). School-to-Work: Making a Difference in Education. New York: Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Kohler, P.D. (1993). Best practices in transition: Substantiated or implied? Career Development for Exceptional Children, 16, 107-115.

Kohler, P.D. & Rusch, F. (1995). School to work transition: Identification of employment related outcomes and activity indicators. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 18, 33-50.

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

McNeil, J.M. (2000). Employment, Earnings and Disability. Survey of Income and Program Participation data, using a definition of disability based on limitations in activities of daily living and instrumental activities of daily living. U.S. Bureau of the Census.

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.

Morningstar, M. (1997). Critical issues in career development and employment preparation for adolescents with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 18, 307-320.

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

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.

Social Security Administration. (2002). Annual Statistical Supplement to the Social Security Bulletin. Table 7.A1, page 276. Publication information or link?

Wehman, P. (1996). Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Wonacott, M.E. (2002). The Impact of Work-based Learning on Students. ERIC Digest No. 242. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, The Ohio State University. Available at:

Need help viewing a document? View our document help page.

Have a comment or suggestion in regard to our site? Please send us your feedback.