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Work-based learning is an approach to adult education and training emphasizes the employee as learner and the work process as a source of learning. It benefits employers seeking to enhance the skills of incumbent workers, educators seeking to meet the needs of employers, and students seeking career advancement opportunities.

The concept of learning in the workplace is not new; all workers receive informal, on-the-job training. Moreover, work-based learning shares features with and builds on other forms of learning associated with the workplace, including on-site classes, internships, residencies, and apprenticeships.

Work-based learning differs in that the learner is an employee first and the learning is continuous with the job itself, which is structured to achieve learning objectives. These objectives derive from the skill requirements of the job. The instructional approaches used in work-based learning capture, document, formalize, and reward learning that occurs on the job. Work-based learning can support career advancement for employees, based on their earning academic credit or industry-recognized credentials for achievement.

Work-based learning requires both employers and educators to change: they build a “learning friendly” culture at the workplace, while making higher education “worker friendly” in its delivery of instruction, its admission and credit-granting policies, and other areas. While advancement in most occupations requires postsecondary degrees or certificates, few workplaces are organized to facilitate college-level learning, nor are colleges readily accessible to full-time workers, despite advances in distance learning.

Work-based learning requires a strong partnership between the employer and education and training organizations, often joined by labor and community organizations. The partners collaborate to determine the competencies needed or a particular occupation, and then they structure ways to teach the competencies in a work setting. Once students demonstrate they have mastered the competencies, they receive academic credit or industry-recognized credentials.

Work-based learning transforms the traditional role of college faculty members, who become learning guides or facilitators as much as teachers. Faculty, worksite supervisors, peer mentors, and other staff all have responsibilities for designing and delivering some of the curriculum. Supervisors and others at the workplace help employers understand the competencies required for college credit, the requirements for accreditation, and a variety of regulations. Based on this information, worksite supervisors, together with college faculty, identify work-related tasks that have learning potential. And together, they determine how learning occurs and what supportive materials employees need.

This toolkit can help employers and education providers decide when and how to use work-based learning. It contains tools and resources on the four steps to launching and implementing an effective project using this powerful approach to developing human resources.

Four Steps to Work-Based Learning

Step 1: Planning

Careful planning is critical to the success of work-based learning.

Investing time and energy up front makes implementation more efficient, builds commitment from project partners, and results in a better-prepared cohort of students, ready to achieve during the program implementation. In Jobs to Careers, employers, educators, and other key partners collaborated during the planning process to develop a vision and measures of success.

The Planning section contains tools and resources to help you define the business problem, develop internal employer commitment, build work-based learning partnerships, and recruit students.

Step 2: Designing

Work-based learning is flexible in meeting the needs of a variety of employers, education partners, and workers. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach to education and training.

Flexibility comes with a price, however. The unique design characteristics of each work-based learning project must be developed before the educational program can begin.

The Design section contains examples of work-based learning from Jobs to Careers and templates to assist you in designing your own program. The tools and resources will help you identify competencies, determine work activities, convert traditional curricula to work-based learning curricula, design career paths, and reward skills development.

Step 3: Doing

A wide variety of employers and education and training partnerships can implement work-based learning, and they can do so for a wide variety of occupations.

The Doing section contains examples of “doing work-based learning” in six categories, along with tools and templates that Jobs to Careers has used to implement programs. The tools and resources will help you implements ways to build basic skills; assess mastery of competency; make use of coaches, mentors, and supervisors; and introduce innovative instructional strategies, including the use of Critical Thinking and Reflection.

Step 4: Sustaining

Sustainability is a critical challenge for workforce development programs, which often originate with grants or public start-up funds. Continuing the work requires commitments from employers as well as from their partners.

The Sustaining section addresses sustainability in four primary ways: systems change; return on investment; institutionalizing work-based learning products; and continuous improvement.