Work-Based Learning – A Primer

Pam Sornson, JD

Because of trending changes in automation, remote work, and ecommerce driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, some analysts surmise that as much as 25% of the nation’s workforce will need to switch occupations in the emerging, post-COVID economy. For many workers, that switch may require retraining, upskilling, or even a complete overhaul of their employable skillsets. At the same time, those same trends are driving employers to overhaul their existing workflows so they can continue to compete in the new local and regional economies. Both populations face a similar challenge: how to identify and master new marketplace demands to capture the economic possibilities that will arise as the pandemic recedes.

Fortunately, there’s one tool that addresses the differing needs of both groups. Work-based Learning (WBL) allows employers to train new, potential employees on the specific skills they will need to secure a job while, at the same time, offers workers the opportunity to learn what they need to know to regain their economic foundation.


What is Work-Based Learning?

‘Work-based learning’ is typically organized through an educational program. The program facilitates both classroom instruction and connections with relevant businesses, so the student gains valuable occupational insights from both resources. And it is what its name suggests: student workers learn new skills and hone existing talents while they are actually performing valuable services for their employers.

According to federal policy, WBL consists of three components:

The alignment of classroom lessons and workplace experiences

For schools transitioning to add or become workforce development centers, alignment of course and program curricula to current industrial demand is critical. Instructors may require additional training and resources to modify their work to conform to emerging workplace requirements. Working with business leaders can inform those processes to ensure accuracy in the finished syllabus, ensuring that the student gains as much as possible from the effort. Introducing the theoretical and practical aspects of an occupation in a classroom setting gives the student insights into job requirements that can then be experienced hands-on in the workplace setting.

The application of technical, academic, and employable skills in a workplace setting

In the workplace, employers build on classroom lessons by providing hands-on, real-life occupational experiences in worksite workflows and systems. Learning while onsite also offers the student the opportunity to evaluate other potential occupations or careers that they might not have been aware of or considered.

Overarching support from both educational and occupational mentors

Not least significant is the relationship that frequently develops between the student and the employer/trainer. Sharing by the employer/trainer of not just the training needed but also personal experiences within the business and industry provides the student with invaluable context for the work they may elect to take on for the rest of their career.

Collaborated training that marries classroom theory with workplace experience allows students to integrate both more fully and with deeper comprehension into their occupational skill base. In some cases, the WBL occurs in apprenticeships or internships; in other cases, student workers may be volunteers. In all cases, both the student worker and the employer gain value from the process. Once complete, the WBL experience delivers a knowledgeable, well-trained employee who is prepared to provide full operational capabilities on the first day of their job.

Further, the WBL experience solves a seminal challenge for many job seekers: it’s sometimes impossible to find work without also having pre-existing experience, but it’s also difficult to gain experience without having a job. And, as the national and global economies embrace the changes forced by the pandemic, more workers will be facing that dilemma, having had a job or career in what is now an obsolete field, and not having knowledge of or experience in the occupational fields emerging Post COVID.


WBL as an Economic Driver

The COVID-19 pandemic forced all kinds of changes to how work gets done. It introduced automation in place of human workers, transitioned whole onsite workforces into remote workforces, and redirected traditional commerce activities into digital resources, not the conventional face-to-face encounters experienced at brick-and-mortar stores. Experts believe that many of those changes are likely to be permanent and that they have already altered the post-COVID labor market. Those changes will also exacerbate an already concerning issue in today’s workforce: according to a 2016 Pew Research study, 35% of adult workers acknowledged that they did not have the education or training necessary to accel in their jobs or careers. The coronavirus concern almost certainly exacerbates their challenge while forcing even well-trained workers into the same situation.

WBL opportunities provide a solution to this dilemma for both potential employees and their future employers.

For employers, partnering with a local college that provides WBL opportunities facilitates the updated training their workforce needs without also requiring a specific investment in workforce training by the business itself. In California, local community colleges receive funding to provide the teachers, facilities, and materials needed to improve the skill base of their community business and industry partners.

For potential employees who are retraining for new jobs, WBL learning enhances their retraining experience and speeds their ‘time-to-market’ as skilled and well-trained workers.


WBL as a Social Driver

Also not insignificant to the WBL discussion is the recent spotlight on America’s racial tensions and the need for increased diversity in the country’s labor force. In too many cases, students of color or who are otherwise disadvantaged are overlooked as possible job candidates, nor do they always have the opportunity to obtain the high-quality training offered to their white counterparts. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated these issues. Researchers at the Brooking Institute believe that WBL opportunities can alleviate them.

In a recent report, the Brookings experts identify three tenets of WBL that can be particularly effective when experienced by a diverse student population:

The worker/employer relationship supports the growth and development of the worker, not just in technical skills but also in ‘soft skills,’ such as timeliness, accuracy, and efficiency. Removing institutional barriers that currently impede the diverse student population will open up the values that these relationships offer.

The social capital that develops as the student worker becomes conversant in occupational norms and engages in the business as one of its valuable assets. Connections made in the student role can become valuable career assets later on.

Exposure to new environments and expectations that would not be available in other areas of the student’s life. Especially for ‘first generation’ college-goers, a WBL opportunity often opens doors to previously unknown possibilities.


The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently altered the global economy. Businesses and industries must modify their workflows and expectations to maintain their markets in the emerging, post-COVID world. As vaccines take hold and the global economy slowly re-opens, more businesses will be needing upskilled and well-trained workers to fill the voids created by the crisis. Those who are willing to provide work-based learning opportunities to student workers are likely to gain precisely the quality workers they need.

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