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Making work-based learning work

Margo Hoftijzer's picture
Work-based learning has several benefits.

Guest blog by: Margo Hoftijzer, formerly a Senior Economist in the Education Global Practice of the World Bank. ​

Work-based learning is a hot topic when discussing the transition of young graduates from school to work. Whether we talk about apprenticeships, dual vocational education and training, or work placements, it is recognized worldwide that there are strong benefits when students gain real workplace experience before they join the workforce.

The many benefits of work-based learning

When implemented effectively, students don’t only gain relevant practical skills, but they also strengthen essential socio-emotional skills, such as the ability to work in teams, problem solving, and time management. Firms benefit as well. They can tailor the programs to ensure that students acquire those skills that are most relevant for their enterprises, and they get to know their trainees well so that they can select the best for recruitment later. Moreover, during the period of work-based learning itself, firms benefit from the trainees’ contributions to the work processes of the enterprise, usually at low costs.   

Making it work

Despite the strong recognition of the importance of work-based learning, many vocational education and training (VET) systems worldwide remain largely school-based, and offer little real workplace experience to their students. This is not always due to lack of trying. Some governments, often inspired by the success of the well-known German-style ‘dual system’, aim to introduce apprenticeship systems which are largely managed by enterprises and where most learning takes place in firms. Others, like Latvia, take a more gradual approach by expanding work-based learning while maintaining a VET system that is largely managed by schools. 

There are plenty of studies describing the features of successful and mature training systems that are already largely employer-driven and firm-based (for example here and here). However, it is harder to find research on how to make the transition from a school-based vocation education and training system to a system that includes stronger elements of work-based learning, which is the challenge in many countries. See this report that does focus on this transition.

Our experiences in Poland show how important the incentives and capacity of schools and firms are. In 2016/17, the World Bank provided assistance to one of Poland’s less-developed regions, Świętokrzyskie, to improve the duration, quality, and relevance of work-based learning in secondary VET. In Świętokrzyskie (as in Poland generally), VET provision at the upper-secondary technical education still largely takes place in schools. Less than 9 percent of Polish technical education students engage in practical activities in firms for more than the obligatory four weeks throughout their training program.This low incidence of work-based learning is not due to explicit barriers in government regulations, since Poland’s regulations allow a flexible approach to workplace learning.

We investigated what other barriers firms and schools might face to strengthen work-based learning and this is what we discovered:

We found that weak incentives and capacity were major underlying stumbling blocks, both for firms and schools. For example: enterprises may not be keen to interact with schools if they don’t expect schools to be responsive to their needs, and firms may not offer work-placements if they expect their trainees to be poached by competitors.

Firms that lack the pedagogical know-how to train efficiently, and that struggle to integrate trainees in regular business processes, will find that the benefit-cost ratio of work-placements is too low to make them worthwhile.

In schools, management and teachers may not be keen to change business as usual, especially since increased engagement with enterprises may expose knowledge gaps of teachers, and if there is a perceived risk that staff numbers need to be reduced if students start to spend more time in firms. Reforms will be further complicated if school management and staff is insufficiently familiar with essential processes to engage firms, to monitor learning outcomes during work-placements, and to align learning in the workplace with what is being taught in the school.

What we concluded from our work in Poland, is that firms and schools need nudges and support to increase work-based learning. This is not only the case during the transition from a school-based system to one that incorporated more work based learning. International practices show that even in VET systems where work-based learning is part and parcel of training provision, significant resources are structurally allocated to support the process.

Making work based learning work internationally

For example, in Finland, teachers update their vocational skills via work placement periods that are a structural part of teacher professional development. In Germany, the Federal VET Institute developed implementation guides on new vocational programs to benefit VET practitioners. And in Austria, the Minister of Economy awards prizes to firms with a strong record in apprenticeships, as a cost-efficient way to signal the importance of quality work-based learning and to increase the visibility of well-performing firms. Our recent publication provides lots more examples on this, and of other international practices that promote work-based learning.

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