Office of work-based learning matching kids with their futures

The fibers that connect our schools to the world outside the classroom grow stronger each year.

As students and educators return to school this fall, many will enter an environment where book learning comingles with concrete, on-the-job training. Many will graduate high school with college credits already in tow, or with training certifications they can use to land a job right out of school. It’s a pragmatic approach that has near-unanimous support from state leaders.

“Work-based learning” is fundamentally changing how we think about school and workforce training.

The economy is changing quickly. Most of our young people are going to need training beyond high school, and that can be expensive. And up until a few years ago, most high school students, with the exception of our vocational-technical students, did not have a meaningful work experience before graduating.

The new office of work-based learning at Delaware Tech is helping to answer that call.

To address the gap between students and real-life job experience, Delaware in 2014 joined the national Pathways to Prosperity Network (PTP Network), a network of states and regions working together to rethink economic development and workforce pipelines. That connection led to “Delaware Pathways,” a statewide partnership that loops together schools, employers, higher ed, and more.

This fall, nearly 15,000 high school students are enrolled in 25 different career pathways, opening access to industry credentials, early college credits, and work-based learning experiences. Sixty-five percent (approximately 5,700) of the 8,848 high school seniors enrolled in the 2017-18 school year met a “college
or career readiness” benchmark.

The Office of Work-Based Learning (OWBL) was born in 2017, established under the Delaware Pathways Strategic Plan and launched as a part of Delaware Technical Community College.

The office serves as an intermediary — a hub where employers and/or education agencies can reach out and start connecting. The OWBL offers a menu of suggestions, from offering internships, to job shadowing, apprenticeships — or even just mentoring or guest speaking to a classroom.

In its first year in existence, the OWBL engaged more than 240 local employers spanning 20 industries. Thirty-three employers committed to offering work-based learning opportunities this school year. Hundreds of employers attended industry-focused events, and lent OWBL their valuable insights about partnering with schools.

Proponents say work-based learning makes sense for all parties. For kids, the benefits are obvious. They get to apply what they’re learning in school into real-world situations. They get a better sense for how the real world actually works — like the expectations of a workplace environment, or the so-called “soft skills” like communication and empathy. In its outreach and surveys, the OWBL discovered that local employers view these soft skills as key attributes they need in new hires.

And employers say having youth involved in their daily operations can actually increase their brand awareness in the community. Many have shared that mentoring young people actually strengthens their office culture and increases job satisfaction. Often, companies end up hiring the young people who engage with them. Most importantly, it gives employers a direct line into shaping their future workforce.

“It’s an exciting and forward-looking time to be in the health-care industry. Our workforce needs are evolving,” says Lolita Lopez, president and CEO of West Side Health and a member of OWBL’s new Health Care Industry Council.

Industry Councils are industry-specific groups of employers who work together to build a pipeline of people who are prepared to fill jobs in their industry. They work together with the OWBL to inform and shape education programs and credentials for students and help fellow council companies build and expand work-based learning experiences for students.

One area that needs more work-based learning opportunities is health care.

“In our universe — which puts caring for the health of Delawareans first — positions like community health ambassadors, behavioral health counselors, licensed practical nurses, and IT and systems workers have become huge needs,” Lopez says. “And, as we come together to better understand our community’s needs, we will engage with our colleagues in education to inform training, work-based learning experiences, certification programs, and even middle- and high-school curricula.”

Industry Councils have launched for health care and the trio of energy, manufacturing, and engineering. Others on the way include banking and finance, hospitality, IT, and construction trades.

Delaware’s focus on postsecondary prep — and its ability to scale good ideas across the state—have made us a national example. Noted experts ranging from nonprofits like Jobs for the Future to academic settings like Harvard Graduate School of Education and Georgetown University have lauded Delaware for our progress.

Today Delaware is considered a national leader when it comes to career and technical education and preparing young people for life after high school. We as a state now have the chance to do something that’s really special. We have the most scalable and replicable approach in the nation. Per capita, we are growing faster than any other state and we are doing it efficiently. By the end of the 2020/21 school year, fully half of our high schoolers will be in pathways. And it’s because of our cross-sector collaboration that we’ve been able to scale work-based learning with quality.” 

By Mark Brainard and Paul Herdman


Mark Brainard is the president of Delaware Tech. Paul Herdman is the president and CEO of Rodel, a nonprofit organization that partners with Delawareans and educational innovators from around the world to transform public education in the First State. Rodel was one of the founding partners in Delaware Pathways. For more information on this program, visit www.deowbl.org. 

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