While education beyond high school is the surest ticket to the middle class, the postsecondary landscape is complicated and hard to navigate. For those whose families and schools can’t provide adequate guidance, it is not easy to identify college and training options that are affordable and a good fit. For those who do not enroll in college—as well as for the many who do enroll but don’t complete a degree or certification—employment prospects are largely limited to low-wage jobs. And, with a few exceptions, neither secondary nor postsecondary systems have a clear interface with the world of work. Among students and employers, there are few shared benchmarks outlining the skill requirements for different industries and occupations, how to obtain those skills, and how to measure them. As a result, young people have high levels of unemployment and tend to cycle in and out of jobs even as employers report difficulty finding workers with the necessary skills and experience.

Moreover, the educational and employment landscapes are riddled with inequities that routinely disadvantage young people who are Black, Latino or Hispanic, or low-income. The K-12 and postsecondary education systems are deeply stratified by race and class, and do not live up to the essential American goal of providing equal opportunity. When looking for work, young people who are poorly served by the educational system are plunged into a similarly stratified labor market, in which educational attainment and race are key markers.

Based on interviews and analyses of the relevant literature, we synthesize lessons from research and practice in education, youth development, and workforce development to weave together a vision of high-quality work-based learning. We identify three critical elements and explore the implications for WBL programs, particularly those serving high school students and out-of-school youth (young people who are not in school and have less than a college degree).

  1. Positive relationships with adults that support growth and development. 
  2. Social capital that provides information and contacts regarding employment. 
  3. Work experiences that offer opportunities for hands-on learning and expose young people to new environments and expectations.

Read the full article about work-based learning by Martha Ross, Richard Kazis, Nicole Bateman, and Laura Stateler at Brookings.