It’s whom you know: Work-based learning helps build labor market connections

Student at computer

What can educators do to better prepare young people for careers? Although high schools claim that graduates should be “college and career-ready,” in practice, educators have paid little attention to career readiness. Many still believe that all you need is a college degree and a career will follow.

But increasingly in today’s labor market, job openings call for technical skills and work experience that don’t come automatically with a college degree. To enable young people to learn about work, learn to work, and experiment with possible careers, educators and policy makers are working to expand work-based learning  WBL opportunities. Defined broadly, WBL is a sequenced and coordinated set of activities in which young people gain exposure to the world of work ranging from “light touch” visits to companies and job shadows to paid internships in the final years of high school. Work-based learning demonstrates that what students learn in school has real-world applications, and thus encourages students to work hard toward the goal of a career.

Some low-income young people already benefit from career-focused high school programs that include work-based learning. The Pathways to Prosperity Initiative led by Jobs for the Future and the Harvard Graduate School of Education is a network of 15 states and regions building career-focused grades 9 through 14 (associate’s degree) pathways that include work experiences. The nation’s strongest vocational schools, career academies and initiatives such as P-TECH, Linked Learning, and NAF all aspire to provide WBL for all students.

But it’s worth highlighting one often neglected aspect of even the best WBL initiatives—developing students’ social capital.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values, and understanding.” Networks in turn are composed of concentric circles or “bonds, bridges and links.” These circles include links to family and close friends, distant friends and colleagues, and those further away on the social ladder.  The greater the “dose” of social capital, the more likely a credentialed young person is to move beyond immediate family and community bonds to activate promising connections to the labor market.

Currently, the benefits of WBL accrue disproportionately to “the most highly educated and socially connected segments of the U.S. population.” Privileged high school and college students find internships via family friends or parental work connections; they feel entitled to ask the right people for help. Consider those college essays in which high schoolers recount their experiences working in a university lab, a business, or a political advocacy organization. To land these opportunities, well-connected young people leverage their social capital, which can be as decisive a factor as their knowledge, skills, and motivation.

Low-income young people, by contrast, must learn to build networks to unfamiliar worlds.  At Guttman Community College, CUNY’s first new community college in 40 years, all students take a yearlong course called Ethnographies of Work. Along with ethnographic methods, they study and visit workplaces, and learn about the role of social networks in finding a good job. In an interview I did at Guttman, a first-year student talked about his high school internship in the District Attorney’s office: “When I’m ready for law school,” he said, “I can go get my letters of recommendation. They’re waiting for me.” As a young African-American, he was especially sensitive to crossing barriers of race, and had sought out a lawyer of color as his mentor. His aspirations and confidence far surpassed those of his classmates who had cycled in and out of low-wage work or hadn’t worked at all.  Guttman teaches students to reach out to and stay in touch with mentors as this young man had, so that his experience would not be the exception, but the norm.

Guttman is a unique community college—work and careers are at the center of its curriculum. But all high schools and colleges can help young people develop social capital through teachers, ministers, community organizations, business visitors and sites like LinkedIn. When employers visit classrooms, participate in career fairs, or offer job shadowing opportunities, instructors can be explicit that students are not just learning the content of a specific career, but are building and navigating relationships to open doors in those careers as well. It’s not hard for an instructor to suggest that when a young person meets an adult, he or she can ask for a card, chat about a visitor’s company, and say, “May I call you when I’m ready for an internship or a summer job?”