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Promising Trends and Challenges in Work-Based Learning: A Market Scan of Organizations and Tools

June 10, 2018

At a Glance

We need more work-based learning opportunities for all learners and more alignment across the continuum of career exposure, engagement, and experience throughout elementary, middle, and high school and postsecondary education.

Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner, Rethink Education
Katrina Stevens, Director of Learning Science, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (written while Entrepreneur in Residence at JFFLabs)
Practices & Centers Topics

We need more work-based learning opportunities for all learners and more alignment across the continuum of career exposure, engagement, and experience throughout elementary, middle, and high school and postsecondary education.

Americans seeking employment often face a conundrum: relevant work experience is a prerequisite for many jobs, but it is difficult to gain the required experience without being in the workplace.

Work-based learning—activities that occur in workplaces through which youth and adults gain the knowledge, skills, and experience needed for entry or advancement in a particular field—offers a solution to this problem. Significant evidence exists that work-based learning works. We define work-based learning as an educational strategy that provides learners with real-life work experiences that complement their academic instruction. These experiences typically occur at an employer’s worksite, where students participate in on-the-job learning, have an opportunity to develop skills that transfer to work, and receive supervision and mentoring on the job. Various forms of work-based learning include internships, on-the-job training, workplace simulations, and more recently, a growing number of high school-based apprenticeships.

However, despite the clear advantages of work-based learning experiences, there are far too few available for those who would benefit the most: low-income young people and adults without the connections and formal support services to help them find the internship that will give them a leg up in the labor market. Further, the experiences that are available tend to mimic the current siloed thinking of “education or work.”

Technology holds potential to expand work-based learning opportunities for all learners, bringing more cohesion to youth pathways from elementary school through their postsecondary lives and into the labor market. As part of JFFLabs’ initial focus on work-based learning innovators and disruptors, we are scanning the market with a particular focus on ways technology might be able to overcome current challenges in providing equitable access to high-quality, work-based learning. In this blog we focus on the K–12 and postsecondary market. Later this year, JFFLabs will conduct a scan focused on learning for frontline workers.

As we reviewed tech-based products and traditional face-to-face programs, it became increasingly clear that there are significant opportunities for these efforts to inform each other. We’re eager to hear insights from others in the field as we continue the work of helping identify and create opportunities for meaningful work-based learning.

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Our market scan of K–12 and postsecondary solutions revealed a number of promising trends in career exploration and work-based learning. Here are some highlights of these trends.

Career Exploration

  • Both tech-based and non-tech-based solutions in the field are offering students opportunities to increase their knowledge of career paths and explore their individual career interests.
  • Virtual counseling platforms, such as CollegeWise and 100Mentors, are available to supplement existing counselors with access to industry mentors and other advising services. These platforms could be expanded to include more work-based learning opportunities.
  • Dashboards are being designed to allow students to align their secondary experience (class selection, extracurricular classes, college selection, interests, soft skills, etc.) with desired postsecondary experience.
  • Assessments and platforms are in development that leverage machine learning to help students find their authentic or “true” scholarship, college, and/or career “match.” C’reer and MyKlovr are examples of such platforms.
  • The integration or streamlining of materials needed for college application process (transcripts, college essays, recommendations, scholarships, etc.) between higher education institutions and high schools has become more standard through platforms like Naviance and Xello (formerly named Career Cruising). Because of the large number of schools using solutions like these, there’s an opportunity to build in more capacity on these platforms to connect to work-based learning opportunities.
  • More programs are being designed to increase STEM/STEAM career awareness, such as DefinedSTEM, Life Journey, and Couragion Career Exploration.
  • Virtual field trips have become more available through applications like Google Expeditions, Nearpod, and Discovery VR. These platforms could be expanded to include more virtual work-based learning experiences.
  • Similarly, extended reality (AR/VR) experiences have potential to allow students to engage in work-based learning experiences that are immersive and authentic.

Work-Based Learning

  • Several platforms, such as Launch Path, 100mentors, and Nepris, allow for real-time or recorded interactions between students and industry professionals.
  • Non-tech-based solutions provide many local opportunities along the work-based learning continuum. Two impressive programs are the Cristo Rey Network high schools, which provide work-based learning opportunities for all their students, and the CAPS network, which connects high school students with local businesses.
  • Young people are using platforms to maintain and manage their own “store,” where they may sell products they have designed in or outside of class time. Real World Scholars’ Edcorps, for example, includes an online store where students sell their work, and many students are taking advantage of consumer platforms like Etsy.
  • Social entrepreneurship projects and other project-based learning programs, such as Real World Scholars’ EdCorps and Whatever It Takes, are being designed for students to have a social impact.
  • Micro-badging or micro-credentials allow students to gain and demonstrate skill-specific proficiency when applying for a job or college. LRNG, for example, connects young people to out-of-school learning opportunities that can provide work-based experiences. Similarly, Raise Your Flag, which supports young adults in gaining career skills for non-college career pathways and helps them connect to jobs, uses badges to indicate to employers which skills have been attained, and Launch Path includes badges based on work through internships.
  • Many high school students are able to graduate with entry-level career certifications or earn college credit for work completed in career-related courses or work-based learning experiences.

Continuing Challenges

While we found promising trends and organizations, most work-based learning solutions still face several limitations overall: 1) youth have limited access to an integrated continuum of career exploration that leads to work-based experiences, particularly those most in need of these kinds of experiences; 2) it’s difficult for many organizations to leverage new technologies or sort through all of the available options to determine those most likely to be a good fit for their circumstances—especially when there are several great tools that only address one part of the education-to-career continuum that make up a work-based learning experience; and 3) employers are generally absent from the conversation and don’t yet realize how much they would benefit from being part of an effort to link education and workforce preparation systemically.

1. No Integrated Continuum of Career Exploration through Career Preparation, Training, and Mentorship

While many traditional and tech-based solutions are tackling one or two aspects of the work-based learning continuum, no single program or organization offers a complete end-to-end package of work-based learning from K–12 to workforce, which means schools, parents, young people, and other adults have to pull together all of the pieces themselves. There’s very little curation in the market either, so it’s difficult to identify the best solutions to fit individual needs.

Our landscape scan revealed a number of specific challenges particular to young people participating in the work-based learning activities that would support their development and help them engage in careers of most interest:

  • No single tech-based program enables the full continuum of work-based learning. There are multiple tools for career awareness and exploration; however, more formal career preparation and training opportunities are difficult to find, and no solution exists that is end to end.
  • Students who ask the classic question, “When am I going to use this in my life?” are not seeing the connections between what they are learning and possible careers. Education and work are still seen as too separate from each other. Career exploration and career preparation are not seen as part of an academic schedule, but a “nice to have.” We are clearly missing opportunities to make learning more relevant to young people. A project- or problem-based approach can provide opportunities to develop real-world skills, especially if explicitly connected to careers.
  • Geography is still an access factor for most young people, limiting them to what’s available in their immediate area. Even when an internship or other work-based learning opportunity exists “across town,” if transportation issues prevent students from traveling, they’re unlikely to participate. Small and low-resourced school districts and community organizations are particularly challenged to find funds to create and support these kinds of programs, which leads to more inequities among young people participating in work-based learning experiences. Tech-enabled solutions could ameliorate this barrier.
  • No one has yet offered schools a scalable, turn-key platform for productive, rigorous remote internships, but one example that comes close is Australia’s Intersective, which is partnering with universities—including Boston University—to create remote co-op learning courses. With some instructional design assistance from Intersective, universities and employers are able to launch high-quality, remote work-based learning experiences. There are also opportunities to use existing business tools to create authentic work-based learning experiences. Many organizations are already using tools like Zoom, Slack, Yammer, G-Suite, Basecamp, and telepresence robots to connect remote workers to project teams. But so far, employers and schools have not figured out how to integrate interns into these teams.
  • Statistics about the percentage of jobs that don’t exist now but will when our students enter the workforce are often cited, but we’re not doing enough collectively to prepare for this upcoming seismic shift in changing career pathways. Our society has only just begun to feel the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce. Most tech-enabled and non-tech-based programs, for example, focus more on traditional career pathways, with some specifically highlighting STEM careers, such as those programs mentioned above. Though these programs provide useful information and exposure, we need a broader range of careers and skills that more accurately match future market needs. Not everyone will be a programmer or a marine biologist!
  • In addition to the technology challenges, the lack of funding is a significant impediment to providing equitable access to work-based learning opportunities, especially tech-enabled ones. Limited funding exists for the development of programs, training for supervising adults, student compensation, and the cost of innovative tech solutions. Learners need to be gainfully employed throughout their internship or apprenticeships because most people cannot afford to work without pay while they participate in on-the-job training.
  • Though strong research supports the impact of mentors on preparing young people for work, mentorship opportunities are limited because they are human resource intensive and often require extensive training for industry experts. Finding the right mentors to match student interests is no small feat, and issues of safety and privacy when students are under 18 create more barriers for interactions between students and adults. Some organizations are working to streamline these kinds of processes; for example, Big Picture Learning’s team encourages districts to replace outdated methods of requiring fingerprints, which place a burden on employer partners, with the use of the sex offender registry, which is online and far more comprehensive. Their tool ImBlaze makes administrative processes like this one easier as well as providing a platform that helps match student interests to available mentors and opportunities. Programs like these eliminate or streamline time-consuming administrative tasks in order to enable more effective and aligned face-to-face interactions and experiences.
  • Another promising program that minimizes training and resources on the employer side is the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), which has now expanded to 11 states and has partnerships with 13 universities. In the CAPS program, industry partner organizations identify problems or projects they would like developed, usually from the bottom of their top 10 list. Students develop and propose solutions to these employers and receive direct feedback; often, the employer adopts the work done by these students. Young learners gain valuable real-world work experience interacting with these employers, but the employers do not need to manage the day-to-day logistics of hosting and managing students.

While technology holds great promise for strengthening and complementing work-based learning strategies, there is nothing like the real-world experiences of interacting with supervisors and co-workers, getting to work on time, and learning new skills on the job. The ideal solutions will account for the need to develop these skills and relationships too.

2. Difficult to Leverage New Technologies

Though there are promising technologies emerging, such as virtual and augmented reality, very few solutions currently use extended reality (the umbrella term for virtual and augmented tech) to provide opportunities for career preparation and training. These new innovative technologies could be harnessed and implemented in communities where access to various types of careers or opportunities are limited. Imagine people learning in a virtual workplace environment where they interacted with colleagues, made decisions, and practiced specific job skills. Because of the digital nature of these environments, they could receive specific feedback on their interactions and repeat scenarios multiple times to develop more competence and fluency. However, the cost of development is currently prohibitive for most organizations to create meaningful simulations at any scale. Issues of student privacy are also more complex for those under 18. Some organizations, such as iCivics, which connects students to real-world civics, and the EcoMUVE program, which immerses students in environments that help them understand patterns in ecosystems, are utilizing simulations to engage learners within courses in today’s curriculum. These kinds of simulations could be used to create more career training.

In addition to virtual reality, imagine a future where students and other learners walk through a shopping center using an augmented reality app that displays all of the jobs associated with each store. They click on any of these positions to learn what skills are necessary to be successful at these jobs and click on potential next steps for gaining those skills or even applying for a job. We could build the augmented app for walking through the mall, as well as others that allowed young people to visit a science museum with an app that provides information about all of the back office work, the creation of exhibits, the graphics needed to design captions, and the maintaining of climate control, for example. Any young person who wanted to gain real-world work experience would have easy access to a wide range of opportunities literally at their fingertips. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world yet.

3. Insufficient Employer Engagement

Despite the wide variety of industries now facing increasingly complex workforce challenges, including a shortage of skilled workers, far too few employers have opened their offices and shop floors to help prepare the next generation of workers. Employer-led efforts are the key to meeting the current demand for more work-based learning opportunities. If we hope to improve work and career pipelines, we need more industry involvement because school budgets and priorities aren’t increasing any time soon, and resources aren’t flowing into other organizations that support work-based learning. A number of employers are implementing programs and/or working with nonprofit and education partners to make it easier for young people to identify career paths and gain the skills that employers need.

The Canadian organization Raise Your Flag, for example, works with companies with open positions, such as Canada Air, Philz Coffee, Tim Hortons, YMCA, and Telus, to provide a platform that details step-by-step career paths at those companies, from entry-level position to management and beyond. Raise Your Flag specifically focuses on careers that do not require a college degree. Their skills badging system also allows both employees and employers to recognize where employees are on their trajectories both before and after employment.

Another very successful program, PTECH (Pathways in Technology), started as a collaboration between IBM, the New York City Department of Education, and the City University of New York. P-TECH lasts six years and gives students a high school degree, a community college degree, and significant work experience by the time they finish high school, with no tuition cost to the students and their parents. P-TECH’s work-based learning includes mentoring, job shadowing, and internships. There are now seven P-TECH schools in New York City and dozens of others elsewhere in New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Texas, Illinois, and Colorado.

We owe it to our young people, adult learners, and our larger society to provide more opportunities for learning that directly relate to real jobs that will exist when they are ready to enter the workforce. Today’s kindergarteners will graduate in 2030 to a world of work radically different than our current landscape.

Technology has the potential to increase work-based learning experiences, but we must be strategic and thoughtful about making sure that these emerging tech solutions provide all students with access to a wide range of rich opportunities, regardless of zip code. These are some of the issues we will explore in our upcoming blog series and that will be featured during discussions at Horizons, JFF’s national summit in New Orleans, on June 13–14. Subscribe to our newsletter below, and visit to follow the series.

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