The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recession have decimated educational and employment opportunities for millions of young Americans. In a new report, we argue that work-based learning (WBL) experiences such as internships and apprenticeships can help remedy these impacts, and act as a lever to advance equity and economic opportunity for young people—if they are done well. Our vision of WBL would emphasize supportive relationships with adults, connections to broader social and professional networks, and authentic work experiences that provide hands-on learning opportunities and the chance to take on new roles and responsibilities.
For a ground-level look at existing WBL programs, we asked Kevin Hickey, director of high school and bridge programs at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), how his organization incorporates work-based learning and quality relationships into its programming for young people. JVS works with high school students from San Francisco’s public school system to prepare them for a successful post-graduation transition. A core component of JVS’s model is work-based learning that links students’ career interests with their academic coursework. Last year, JVS served more than 900 young people.
Brookings: What are your program’s goals for young people, and how does work-based learning help achieve them? How do you measure success?
Hickey: JVS’s goal for young people is to set them on a path to self-sufficiency. Work-based learning is essential to our model. We think of WBL as the vehicle through which young people develop the competencies to succeed in school and work. We’ve anchored our WBL practices with a specific set of competencies that were developed through literature review, stakeholder input and field testing: speaking and communication; reliability and dependability; critical thinking and problem-solving; persistence and motivation; initiative and self-direction; self-advocacy.
Focusing on measures of success in competency development, we’ve partnered with Ntropy Data to develop digital solutions that worksite supervisors use to assess student competency levels. This near-real-time feedback allows JVS to maximize student growth and development and provides insights to important patterns to strengthen our work.
Brookings: What do you think defines quality in work-based learning?
Hickey: Work-based learning needs to be industry-informed and contextualized. For example, our partnership with SFMade provides the industry knowledge for WBL in our local manufacturing sector. Clear expectations are essential for youth workforce service providers, youth, and employers. Formal HR systems that look like regular employment (onboarding, training, evaluation, etc.) provide youth with necessary workplace context and support. High-quality WBL provides rigorous, developmentally appropriate industry/occupation specific skills training, and opportunities for youth to practice core competencies discussed previously. Relatedly, WBL should connect the classroom to the world of work. Not just the job readiness training JVS provides, but also connecting academics to the world of work. For example, our work with John O’Connell High School links WBL to students’ specific career pathways such as building trades, design and sustainable technology, and others. WBL must be grounded in youth development principles that foster professional, caring adult-youth relationships and mentorship, as well as providing safety and supporting youth-centered career development.
Brookings: What is the role of positive relationships with adults in making sure WBL is a constructive experience for the young person? How do you support these relationships?
Hickey: Our youth programs are built on core youth development principles, which include the essential role of positive adult-youth relationships. Such relationships provide skill-building, role-modeling and coaching for young people as they progress through developmentally appropriate experiences.
Focusing on the supervisor-to-youth relationship, JVS supports these relationships in a number of ways. We orient both students and adults prior to the WBL, share WBL expectations, survey the students and adults after the WBL, and use that information to inform the WBL experience going forward (e.g., program design such as length of the experience, satisfaction with the relationship, anticipated next steps, and actual outcomes). Supervisors receive training on youth development principles and support with special populations, such as youth with disabilities. We also provide opportunities for employers to connect with each other for encouragement and shared learning. We advocate for students’ needs whenever needed (if students don’t feel comfortable self-advocating). We prepare students in soft skills, which include communication and self-advocacy skills, so that students also feel comfortable navigating their relationships with adults during WBL. We conduct site visits, doing assessments of both students and supervisors and encouraging stronger communication from both parties.
Brookings: How has your program adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, and do you think any of these changes might continue after the present crisis ends?
Hickey: As we know, the pandemic has been especially difficult for the young people and communities JVS works with. Those least able to deal with the challenges are again those most impacted: communities of color, people with disabilities, young people, and so forth.
Our first and most urgent adaptation was to provide basic emergency supports for food, housing, and phone bills. From March through September, JVS distributed more than $260,000 in emergency support. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been intent on building our distance learning capacity beyond the public health crisis. For example, JVS pivoted our job readiness training online, with and alongside our school district partners. We updated our curriculum for synchronous and asynchronous learning. We are especially excited about the work we’ve done using Virtual Job Shadow, which provides online learning and career exploration for youth. Additionally, we launched virtual internships with partners such as SFMade and the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco.
This is still very much a work in progress as we learn from youth and employer partners how to achieve our WBL goals in a virtual environment. However, distance learning opens up all sorts of possibilities for the future. For example, we have seen terrific engagement between youth and employer partners who are able to more easily connect through JVS events. Not having to travel across town to engage has been an unexpected positive during these challenging times. We will definitely be doing more of those types of engagements.
Brookings: What would you say to education and policy leaders about how to better support work-based learning?
Hickey: First and foremost, work-based learning is work. Policymakers need to invest in the subsidized employment models that allow young people (and adults) to earn money while developing skills. It is a gross misunderstanding of the need in the community to assume that young people can afford to offer free labor in the exchange for skill development. Subsidized employment integrates training in the real world with essential—and well earned—resources for families and communities.
More broadly, our friends at the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) produced an excellent set of guidance for policymakers in their report We Know What Needs to be Done. NYEC recommends centering race and equity along with expanding opportunities for the most vulnerable, such that people of color and those with greatest need are prioritized for service, and such services are informed by young people with lived experience.
Note: Responses have been edited for clarity.