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Work-based learning (WBL) embeds the real world of work into traditional academic pathways, which includes, internships, apprenticeships, and other experiences that connect education to work. It allows employers to develop talent, while also providing students with the necessary skills and networks to enter and succeed professionally.

To scale work-based learning opportunities, districts and their partners will need to:

To promote comprehensive change across the landscape of learning and workforce development, the Key Distinguishers of Integrated Work-Based Learning (KDs) provide a robust framework for organizations whose work is rooted in student achievement, job readiness, and workforce development.

How does the strategy create more equitable access and opportunities?

Prior to entering high school buildings or post-secondary programs, students face vast differences in the resources and networks that play a crucial role in determining their future career success. High-quality work-based learning enables students to expand their occupational identity and build their social capital, both of which contribute to long-term success. Unfortunately, access to these opportunities is not consistent across racial or economic lines. Intentional efforts to ensure that students in under-served schools are afforded the same quality of internship and other WBL opportunities as their peers in better-resourced schools can help improve disparate outcomes in college completion and labor market outcomes.

In addition, work-based learning experiences, such as internships and apprenticeships, allow students to develop an understanding of the real work of work, build skills and a sense of direction, and gain connections that can become part of a social network they can rely on in the years to come. In the future, they can use these networks to meet their broad range of college and career goals. These experiences can level the playing field for young people whose families cannot support them to enter unpaid internships or private enrichment activities. Additionally, it provides employers the opportunity to build much more diverse talent pipelines and to contribute to the development of talent.

What outcomes or benefits are associated with the strategy?

What are the budget implications for implementing the strategy?

The costs for implementing work-based learning generally fall into three categories:

  1. Increasing paid work experiences that are connected to students’ school activities, including paid internships, apprenticeships, etc.
  2. Ensuring that high schools and postsecondary institutions have the staffing, infrastructure, and other resources necessary to implement high-quality WBL programs. This includes dedicated staff, such as WBL coordinators in high schools, and empowered college career centers
  3. Supporting intermediaries to act as “market makers”, to ensure connection between employers, local/regional economic development efforts, and educational/workforce development systems: this could be third party groups, employer associations, etc., which uses analysis of the skills needed for specific occupations to align programming in schools.

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How will the strategy limit significant recurring costs while ensuring long-term sustainability?

WBL in high schools and post-secondary programs is associated with improved student outcomes, including attendance, grades, and test scores. High schools and post-secondary programs with better student career placement and wage outcomes will see higher enrollment and completion rates and thus, they have the incentives to direct their resources to strategies that braid learning from work into every student’s experience. Additionally, as more students successfully complete WBL experiences and demonstrate the value to businesses, there may be increased interest in sponsoring these opportunities as a talent development strategy.

The Key Distinguishers of Integrated Work-Based Learning (KDs) offer evidence-based, practitioner driven criteria for new and existing initiatives to add rigor and consistency to their efforts, thus saving resources that might be devoted to research and development by each institution. These tools can also be used by funders interested in supporting WBL to ensure consistency and rigor across their WBL portfolio.

What is the anticipated timeline for launching the strategy?

Traditionally, students begin WBL experiences in the fall semester, yet communities can begin and expand WBL opportunities at any time, bringing together the main stakeholders in WBL as needed, based on the capacity of schools, districts and post-secondary programs as well as the willingness and capacity of local businesses in the aligned sectors. The Key Distinguishers offer useful guidelines and examples that accelerate WBL program development. Rubrics are available for funding decisions, sample RFP and scoring. Based on past experience, a community can go from planning to launching integrated WBL in as little as three months.

What internal and/or external capacity (e.g. personnel, infrastructure, training, etc.) is needed to launch the strategy? To monitor and sustain it?


  • Leadership Buy-In: The vocal support of leadership is critical to braiding work based learning into educational pathways based on the Key Distinguishers framework. School, district, and post-secondary leaders need to make student career success a priority. This means resourcing, creating incentives connected to WBL and measuring school success based not only on graduation and completion rates but also a student’s career placement, earning power and ability to make informed career choices. In addition, mayors, governors, and other leaders need to put braided pathways at the center of their economic development agenda by elevating and investing in expansion of this practice in ways that encourage employers and educators to work together to co-develop talent.
  • Internal Stakeholder Capacity: Resourcing and strengthening internal practitioner capacity is absolutely essential. Despite strong pockets of WBL practice across the country, most schools and post-secondary partners will struggle to implement new programming. Typically, the work starts with an internal intrapreneur who has a deep commitment to a young person’s future career success, deep understanding of her/his institutional context, appetite for risk, and willingness to leverage her/his personal networks. Championing and supporting these intrapreneurs, including addressing internal policy and practice barriers, is critically important as well as learning from and institutionalizing the best practice they develop over time.
  • WBL Curriculum: WBL opportunities should be woven into relevant academic curriculum and standards. The experience should provide opportunities for students to test and deepen the career-specific technical skills gained in the classroom. WBL opportunities should align with students’ career goals.
  • Solidify employer partnerships: Districts should research local workforce trends to help inform the most effective WBL opportunities in their community. Much of the work requires intentional relationship management with local employers to build robust and meaningful opportunities for students.

Monitor and Sustain

  • Program Tracking: Investing in the learning management and tracking systems is essential over time to understand the effectiveness of the program. Districts will need to develop and benchmark intermediary functions (e.g. administering student and employer surveys, monitoring program operation, etc.) to ensure partnership satisfaction and retention, provide employer record of coverage, identify and prepare supervisors, and determine appropriate experiences for students.
  • Partnerships: To offer internships and apprenticeships, institutions will need ongoing partnerships with different employers to be able to offer an array of WBL opportunities to students.
Scale Work-Based Learning - Invest Forward
Work-Based Learning Experiences - Invest Forward

What are the first 3-5 steps to take to implement the strategy?

  1. Identify a lead partner to champion this effort.
  2. Dedicate resources to support promising opportunities that braid WBL into traditional educational pathways for high school and post-secondary students.
  3. Determine what metrics to track and define “success” for the program.
  4. Create Request for Proposal (RFP) to identify initiatives that braid WBL into traditional academic pathways in high schools and/or post-secondary programs or form. partnerships with local employers/ programs to establish WBL opportunities that include paid work experiences, credit, and quality career advising.
  5. Score submissions based on the pre-established criteria or work with a team of individuals to establish a WBL program.

What are potential challenges for implementing the strategy?

  1. Challenge: An emphasis on college OR career versus college AND career; Mindsets that embrace learn THEN earn versus braiding learning and earning
    • Solution: Vocal leadership from public officials that WBL is not an alternative track for some students, but a strategy for all students to achieve career success.
      Holding up employers and educators who partner to co-create initiatives to train and develop talent
      Bring together champions of this work together to develop a community of practice that can collectively make the case for change.
      Advocates and community partners can develop well-researched policy briefs to make the case for policy change and leverage data-tracking metrics to prove the effectiveness of WBL.
  2. Challenge: Lack of capacity to support WBL opportunities, advising, and program management.
    • Solution: Schools can leverage community members, employers, colleges and organizations to scaffold their effort to build capacity and implement effective programs.
  3. Challenge: Districts may struggle to implement high-quality internship opportunities without substantial employer engagement.
    • Solution: Before launch, districts should establish a strong network of local employers who are committed to bolstering WBL in their community. After launch, schools should standardize regular check-ins with employers to assist with program operation and provide capacity where needed. Employers who understand the value in the program and have substantial support from districts will be less likely to disengage.

What are models of schools, districts, and/or organizations that are successfully implementing this strategy?

Around the country, states (Texas, California, Delaware, Washington, Colorado) and cities (Boston, Denver) schools, colleges, employers and communities are braiding work into traditional educational pathways beginning in K-12 to prepare young people to survive and thrive in the new economy.

  • Career Connect Washington connects students (up to age 30) to employers to provide real-world learning experiences. The program offers hands-on career exploration and preparation to help students understand potential career pathways.
  • Delaware Pathways offer a number of career pathways, including high school and college-level courses related to their desired field, industry-specific certifications, and WBL opportunities.
  • Youthforce NOLA partners with employers in high-wage industries to expose students to different career paths. They focus on career exposure, skills building, and work experience. At the end of the program, 84% of supervisors believe students have the skills necessary for an entry level job.
  • CareerWise Colorado uses workforce data to connect students to meaningful, paid apprenticeships. By the end of the program, students graduate with college credit, certifications, and a professional network. They have used this program to grow a more diverse educator workforce.
  • Linked Learning Alliance blends rigorous academics, career technical education, WBL, and comprehensive support services to provide meaningful opportunities for students to engage in the workforce. As a result, students—particularly students of color— have better academic success. The program has worked to close the equity gap.

What are some additional resources for districts/states interested in implementing this strategy?