Two years of disrupted learning due to the pandemic have widened longstanding educational disparities that placed youth of color and those from underserved communities at a disadvantage when entering the workforce. Now, we have an unprecedented investment in the nation’s infrastructure that presents the possibility for numerous lucrative new jobs, particularly for young people. But without in-school preparation to develop workplace skills and knowledge, recent graduates will miss employment opportunities created by the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Bridging gaps in education and career development through work-based learning can both set students up to thrive in the workforce of the future and repair our nation’s decrepit infrastructure. These types of programs can give young people real-world experience while in high school, hone students’ academic, technical and employability skills and, by pairing preparation with opportunity, enable graduates to meet the new demands the infrastructure bill will create.

Unfortunately, our education system is not providing students with the skills and experience they need to succeed, particularly in the fields of science, technology engineering and math. Industries reliant on STEM faced a workforce shortage even before the pandemic, and as many as 2 million of an estimated 3.5 million manufacturing jobs may go vacant by 2025 because of the difficulty in finding people with the required skills. At the same time as the infrastructure package increases the need for workers with the capabilities to improve roads, bridges, railways and broadband access, COVID-19 learning loss has put students interested in pursuing STEM careers potentially six to 12 months behind in their education. Students of color are at increased risk of falling behind, with the pandemic widening pre-existing racial disparities in core subjects like math and science that are needed for success in high-paying jobs in these fields.

Fixing the school-to-career pipeline will become the driver of economic recovery. Schools must have the support to prepare learners for opportunities in indispensable high-wage, high-skill occupations that have proven resilient during economic upheavals. Work-based learning brings industry experts to the classroom and students to the workplace. These robust experiences incorporate academic achievement — credits toward a high school diploma or college — and professional training such as paid work experience and internships that help ensure students have pathways for long-term career success.

Read the full article about work-based learning by Tiffany Barfield at The 74.