Learning at work: opportunities for all

Find out how learning at work leads to better opportunities for all youth and more adept employees for businesses.

February 11, 2024

While conventional wisdom states learning must happen before employees take jobs, more progressive wisdom suggests learning at work is a faster track to developing thriving teams and businesses. Workplace education comes in many forms. Discover more about work based learning and its many benefits below. 

What is work based learning?

Work based learning is an educational strategy that provides workers with real-life work experiences where they can apply academic and technical skills to develop their employability. 

The goal is for young people (or adult learners) to gain skills and credentials employers are seeking so they can be placed in promising careers. While traditional classroom-based learning shuts out many from the job market due to high tuition rates and institutional biases, work based learning opens up opportunities for those unable to go to college. 

Work based learning opportunities happen in conjunction with private, public, or nonprofit businesses. They can also be outsourced through training centers. Ideally, work based learning incorporates a trifecta of academic, technical, and employability skills in a work setting with support from trusted mentors. 

Work based learning programs types 

Work based learning happens in formal and informal arrangements, including apprenticeships, job shadowing, mentorships, and more. While each program has different requirements and curriculum, they all share the common goal of giving students hands-on experience. Here are some examples.

Apprenticeship programs: An apprenticeship is a hybrid work based learning program where students learn skills at work while also taking courses. Apprenticeships are paid positions and generally last between one and four years, depending on the industry. Apprenticeships aren't just for trades – any business can create an apprenticeship program.

Internship: Internships are paid or unpaid temporary positions within an organization. Unlike apprenticeships, internships do not guarantee work.

Job Shadowing: Job shadowing is a short-term opportunity that introduces students to a particular career by pairing them with an employee for a designated period of time. This allows them to get familiar with the duties and responsibilities associated with the job. 

Business field trips: High school and community college students take field trips to businesses to gain insight into technological advancements and strategies of an enterprise. They also learn about various career opportunities at a high level within that industry. 

Mentorship: Mentorships are typically an informal arrangement between an employee and a young person seeking guidance on potential career paths.

Work based learning continuum

While some work based learning engagements are shorter than others, many public school systems have a continuum in place to ensure students are supported through the stages of employer engagement. This outreach covers what's learned in the classroom, workplace, and the community. 

Why is work based learning important?

Work based learning programs are beneficial for both students and employers. While college degrees, professional networks, and nepotism benefit the privileged, work based learning provides opportunities for those without access to such capital. 

Furthermore, work based learning helps employers access candidates with the exact skills needed for their open jobs. While classroom learning certainly plays a role in developing career-ready young adults, the curriculum is hardly ever hands-on. Work based learning ensures that candidates learn how to do what's required of them on the job before they step into the role. 

Who does work based learning benefit?

Again, both students and employers benefit from a work based learning structure – in particular, apprenticeships. Why?

Students gain exposure to their careers of interest right away. Since apprenticeship programs are immersive programs, students can start developing technical and professional skills right away rather than waiting to graduate from an institution.

Students are paid, so they can focus on their job rather than mounting debt. While apprentices are put on a progressive wage schedule, they're earning nonetheless. While college students typically work jobs unrelated to their career of choice, apprentices are gaining skills they can add to their resume – and get paid to do it. 

Employers develop more robust talent pipelines. Instead of searching for the perfect unicorn, businesses are building their own with apprenticeship programs for new and existing employees. Work based learning activities allow workers to develop skills needed for hard-to-fill positions. 

Employers can walk the walk on DEI. By offering work based learning opportunities, companies have access to a more diverse talent pool than they would by requiring degrees. Apprenticeship programs lead to teams that are made up of a wide range of perspectives and innovative ideas, thanks to the various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds of the apprentices.  

Check out this article to learn more about the benefits of apprenticeships and learning at work.

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