Audience: Youth Service Professional

Work-based learning occurs when a youth acquires knowledge, skills, attitudes, and habits needed for a particular occupation in a workplace environment. Front line workers have a critical responsibility to ensure that youth are in a supervised program that links knowledge gained at the worksite with a planned program of study so youth can gain basic workplace skills, knowledge of specific occupational skills, and an understanding of different skills.

Work-based learning has many benefits. Youth gain a variety of skills and knowledge about careers. Youth with disabilities who participate in work-based learning in an integrated setting increase the likelihood of their being competitively employed after they leave school. Employers value the qualified workers and efficient recruitment they gain through effective work-based learning.

As a front line worker, you play an important role in making sure youth are connected to age and stage appropriate work-based learning opportunities that will expose them to a variety of careers. Front line workers provide the necessary supports and counseling to make these opportunities successful and maintain on-going relationships with employers that involve them in the youth’s goals and progress. Most importantly, front line workers play a key role in helping youth make informed choices. Work-based learning introduces youth to new options and opportunities, and front line workers must support youth in taking advantage of the full range of career possibilities.


1. How can I be sure that there are age and stage appropriate work-based learning opportunities available for all the youth in my program?

It is an important first step for front line workers to get organized when developing a work-based learning program. An individualized plan should be created to be sure each youth is exposed to a variety of opportunities that are age and stage appropriate. A range of work-based learning experiences should be offered, from program-based worksite simulations and group projects to job shadowing to employer worksite placements. Each youth will have a varying amount of workforce preparation and workplace experience; therefore, it is important to have a variety of developmentally and experientially appropriate placements available. Some youth may need time in a classroom or at the program to develop basic workplace skills while others may be ready to go to a worksite with minimal orientation.

Along with a variety of experiences, youth will have different interests and varying knowledge about available career paths. As a front line worker, you play a vital role in making sure youth have access to information about the wide variety of possible career paths. In order for youth to make informed choices about their career interests, they must know all the opportunities available for them. This is especially important for youth with disabilities, who are often steered into low-paying, dead-end jobs.

Studies have shown that youth with disabilities are successful in quality careers needing technology-based skills, if they are exposed to high expectations and demanding career opportunities. Front-line workers can connect to the full range of local industries by doing outreach to employers and contacting the local Chamber of Commerce. Guest speakers, job shadowing, and worksite visits can provide youth with exposure to “real world” career information. It is important to be sure that guest speakers include persons with disabilities and that worksites include those that employ persons with disabilities, so that youth with disabilities can picture themselves in the world of work.

The variety of work-based experiences and exposure to multiple career paths must be organized into a structured progressive program for youth that links workplace experience and classroom study. This structure should support informed choice by exposing youth to as many alternative career paths as possible. There should be a clear plan for each youth:

  1. Entering the program, including orientation, assessment, and goal setting;
  2. Progressing through the program, including mentoring, performance measurement, and feedback; and
  3. Exiting the program, including performance measurement, program evaluation, transition plan/placement, and follow-up.

It is important to establish a strong relationship and regular contacts with employers as part of the structure of a work-based learning program. Employers need to understand the goals of the program, the individual plans for the youth at their site, the program’s expectations of the employer and the youth, how performance will be measured, and the feedback mechanisms available.

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2. What can I do to help each youth receive the support and counseling they need to be successful at a work-based learning worksite?

The plan developed for each youth in your program may be called an individual service plan, a transition plan, or a professional development plan. Whatever it is called, it should include some basic elements:

  • the youth’s interests, skills, and abilities;
  • the youth’s previous program and work experience;
  • the youth’s career goals or areas of interest;
  • any special supports or accommodations for the youth;
  • the youth’s program goals; and
  • a plan of action/study for the youth during their time at the program.

This plan should be modified as the youth progresses through the program. If the youth already has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP), it should be coordinated with the youth’s work-based learning plan.

It is especially important that youth with disabilities are informed about the supports available and encouraged to advocate for themselves and the accommodations and assistive technologies they need. Support should also include motivational support and counseling, such as a job coach, on-site mentor, weekly group meetings, one-on-one meetings, disability-specific support (advocacy, if needed), and employer conflict resolution services.

The most important part of developing an individual plan is that it remains an on-going process. The front-line worker has several responsibilities in this regard: checking frequently with the youth to see that her or she is progressing along the plan; reassessing goals as youths’ interests and goals change; ensuring that the youth makes choices throughout his or her participation; encouraging the youth to revisit these choices as new information and experience are gained; serving as the link between the youth’s goals, worksite experience and classroom learning; and ensuring that the employer and job supervisor are involved in the youth’s individual plan, as well as that the youth continues to have a voice in his or her work-based learning opportunity. To fulfill these responsibilities, front-line workers should make regular on-site visits to provide feedback and support for participants and to maintain communication with site supervisors and employers. On-site observations and interactions will provide critical information needed to adjust the process and evaluate youth and employer satisfaction.

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3. What is the best way to place and support a youth with disabilities?

Front-line workers should go through the same process in placing youth with disabilities as they do with all youth. An individual plan should be created which looks at the youth’s skills, interests, and goals. As a front-line worker, it is not as important to know the specific diagnosis of the youth’s disability as it is to know how that disability manifests itself in a work setting. Many disabilities will have little to no effect on a youth’s ability to do a job and most require only slight accommodations or modifications for the youth to complete the job. For example, some youth with disabilities do better in certain work settings, such as a quiet area or a room with bright light.

Some youth may decide that they do not want to disclose a hidden disability. This is their prerogative, but the pros and cons of disclosure/nondisclosure should be discussed prior to making this decision. For example, youth who do not disclose their disability are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It is also important to assess each youth’s job readiness, considering both the developmental and experiential level of each youth. Most youth will require some preparation ranging from a mock interview, to resume assistance, to job readiness skills, to an on-site program work experience. In addition, it is important to be sure employers are prepared and understand the program’s goals, the youth’s individual plan, and their role in that plan. The Center for Occupation Research and Building Bridges for Employers & Educators websites both have further information on preparing employers.

Depending on the youth’s disability, it may be important to go to the job site and do some training with the employees about disabilities etiquette, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and accommodations. It is important for the employer to have realistic expectations of the youth and to be involved in supporting the youth’s progress.

Another key element in placing youth is on-going support both on-site and in the classroom. The front line worker must check with the youth to be sure the experience is meeting his or her expectations. The front-line worker should also check with the employer to be sure the youth’s work is meeting required performance levels and see if the employer needs any assistance. For youth with disabilities who often feel isolated or different, it is important to hold some type of peer meeting or other gathering on a regular basis, so that the youth can share their experiences. It is also important to provide on-going support to employers – as they are not all experienced youth workers, they will probably need help around youth interaction.

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4. How can I be sure that we are covering the right workplace skills in the classroom part of our work-based learning program?

The ideal workplace skills for your program will vary somewhat depending on the interests and experiences of the youth in your program, as well as the needs of local employers. However, there are some basic “workplace skills” that will apply to most worksites.

Basic "Workplace Skills"

  • Basic Skills (reading, writing, and math);
  • People Skills (teamwork, negotiation, and communication);
  • Personal Skills (self-management and responsibility);
  • Problem-solving Skills (decision-making and creativity); and
  • Specific job-related skills such as keyboarding and computer literacy will also be needed.:.

When selecting the skills to focus on in your program, it is key to talk to the youth about their goals and interests and to be sure the skills taught relate to those career paths. Youth with disabilities should be encouraged to look at the whole range of possible careers and necessary skills. It is also important to connect with employers at potential worksites to find out what specific skills they are looking for in a youth who is placed at their site – this may include customer service skills, technology knowledge, typing ability, or phone skills.

Once you have selected the work place skills to focus on based on the youth interests and employer needs, design the interactive lesson plans that connect these skills to the youth’s workplace experiences.

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North Central Regional Educational Laboratory
Contains an overview of “Developing Work-Based Learning Opportunities” and a list of important common elements for work-based learning programs.

Information on alternate career paths, salary ranges, working conditions, educational/training requirements, and the current job market.

Vermont Work-Based Learning Manual
Information on planning a work-based learning program including sample classroom lesson plans, forms for various work-based learning formats, and lists of participant and employer responsibilities.

Wisconsin Work-Based Learning Guide
Information on planning a work-based learning program including sample classroom lesson plans, forms for various work-based learning formats, and lists of participant and employer responsibilities.

Mentor Training Program
Information provided by the Cornell Youth and Work Program to help first time mentors gain expertise. The sites offers a number of online training sessions, evaluations and guides.

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

National Service Inclusion Project
Information on job accommodations, modifications, and assistive technology for various disabilities.

Vocational Information Center
The Vocational Information Center website offers a variety of links to useful career and technical education resources broken down by categories, including: college planning, skills, and career planning.

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