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Surprise! Work Helps You Learn to Work...

(And Why Experts Are Serious When They Say That)

By Mary V.L. Wright, Senior Director, Jobs for the Future, and Kristin Wolff, Thinkers+Doers, Associate (Adjunct), Social Policy Research Associates

When reviewing the news and reports related to preparing students for their place in America’s workforce, you can be sure there will be a crisis-laden reference to the “skills gap” and the urgent call for educators to close it. Sometimes this gap refers to an absence of technical skills employers want in new entrants, or sometimes to workers’ lack of knowledge important to their industry. But, most often, it refers to the absence of the skills that help people navigate the workplace itself. Known by many names including—employability skills, 21st-century skills, and personal success skills—these skills are the subject of dozens of reports that have prompted education and workforce professionals to press for new ways to build them.

The most recent of these reports, Leveling Up (May 2016),  points to “soft skills”—specifically, critical thinking and communications—as urgently needed among recent college graduates. The study also reinforces an important finding of a previous Association of American Colleges and Universities report:  there is a yawning gap between the perceptions of new workers about their level of preparedness for the workforce and those of their managers. The report explains:

Overall, the majority of workers (87 percent) feel well prepared (immediately or within three months) for their job upon graduation from college. In contrast, only about half of managers (50 percent) feel that employees who recently graduated from college are well prepared . . .

This context lent urgency to a recent webinar Jobs for the Future hosted as a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Employability Skills project. The webinar was the fourth in a series of convenings of employability skills experts and practitioners representing public, private, and nonprofit sectors. In each of these convenings, participants were asked to share their experiences about what helps build these skills and to share programs, interventions, approaches, and assessments they have identified that show promise.

Interestingly, when these stakeholders were asked simply and directly, “What works best to teach and/or improve these skills?” they repeatedly pointed to one thing: work. Whether work-based learning, internships, apprenticeships, or other earn-and-learn approaches, finding ways for people to apply their skills in a work environment is the most effective way to help people learn the skills needed to succeed on the job and throughout their careers. And there is plenty of evidence to back up these experts.

Nearly all of the employers in the 2015 National Association of Colleges and Employer (NACE) Job Outlook Survey indicated they prefer candidates with work experience but only 75 percent of them indicated a preference for work experience in their field. This suggests employers see work experience of any kind as a benefit. However, paid internships, or jobs that reflect “real work,” command a premium compared to unpaid internships or volunteer opportunities.

In addition, the benefits (for workers, not just employers) of early work experience are significant and long lasting, according to Christopher Ruhm and Charles Baum, who used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to track employment outcomes over several decades.  The researchers found that entry-level work plays a significant role in career development. The experience young people gain by working in restaurants, grocery stores, and retail venues can act as “an invisible curriculum,” preparing them well for future jobs and careers in any sector.

Work helps you learn to work.

But how do learners get these experiences? How can employers help build this employment pipeline? Here are a few programs currently in operation:

  • Some high schools (such as De La Salle North High School) require all students to work during the course of their education.
  • Youth employment programs like Chicago’s One Summer program have been shown to both help students develop skills that enable them to succeed on the job and dramatically reduce violent crime.
  • New and expanded apprenticeship programs link high school career and technical education programs with community college and job experience.
  • Programs that use online platforms, such as Fullbridge and Nepris, that utilize employer content allow for a more work-type experience while in the classroom. 
  • Sophisticated school-employer partnerships such as P-TECH—a program piloted by IBM in Brooklyn and slated to be working with 200 employer partners in 60 schools by the end of 2016—link learning to actual jobs. 

Of course, many of these programs rely on deep and consistent collaboration between educators and employers. Grace Suh, education program manager from IBM, explains IBMs commitment this way:

The partnership aspect is really important. We’re not just writing checks. We offer mentoring, worksite visits, speakers, project days, internships; we visit the schools, they visit us. We are aiming to help kids be college ready, career ready, and participate as citizens in the 21st century.

All of these programs hold promise. But the primary challenge is scale. There are about 15 million students in grades 9-12 in the U.S. today. Only 14 percent of them held jobs in 2014 (compared to 19 percent a decade before). As one of the Employability Skills project stakeholders observed, “Work-based learning at scale will require employer engagement like we’ve never seen before.” But it will also require the partnership between employers and educational institutions to be certain that work experiences are offered so as to close the skills gap once and for all!