A structured paid work experience is a competency-based, educational experience which occurs at the work site and is tied to a student's curriculum. The experience is guided by a training plan which coordinates and integrates a student's school-based instruction with a work site experience. The training plan is an agreement between the school, employer, and the student that specifies the occupational skills, employability skills, and the academic standards that the student will achieve in the work experience. It also defines the relationships and responsibilities of all involved and describes the evaluation process. Student progress in achieving the learning goals in the training plan is supervised and evaluated collaboratively by appropriate school and work site personnel. Work site supervisors/mentors also help students use appropriate workplace skills to resolve real problems. The paid work experience may occur in a public, private, or non-profit organization. Academic credit is usually granted in the subject area included in training plan. The employer is under no obligation to offer regular employment to the student subsequent to the paid work experience. Both the school and the employer must abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act, child labor laws, and minimum wage laws.
Common examples of a structured paid work-based learning opportunity include youth employment programs supported by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and paid internships.
Benefits to Students
A structured paid work experience provides students with an opportunity to gain on-the-job knowledge, experience and technical skills. It gives theoretical knowledge meaning through practical application. The student connects learning in school to a real world application. Through this experience, a student can develop positive work habits and attitudes and the ability to work cooperatively as a team member. It helps a student either focus on a specific career path or choose another. It provides financial rewards for work experience, may provide academic credit, and may lead to employment.
Benefits to Schools
Schools will become aware of changes in the labor market and what skills students need to effectively compete in the world of work. A successful paid work experience builds positive relationships with employers in the community and as a result, some employers become more involved in the curriculum development process. In addition, schools may be able to provide a student with a learning experience in an area that is not otherwise available in the curriculum.
Benefits to Employers
A structured paid work experience provides employers with a student worker who already has some academic and employability skills. It may provide a pool of technically trained employees from which to fill future positions and may reduce recruitment problems and costs. It is a way to bring schools and employers together in training efforts.
Setting Up a Structured Paid Work Experience
Identify a School-based Coordinator
This type of intensive work-based learning experience requires a qualified person at the school to arrange the placement, prepare the student properly, prepare the employer, and to be an ongoing contact for both the employer and the student. The person must be aware of the community and businesses in the area, know the school's curriculum, and know the legal issues involved in a work experience. Many schools have found that it is too much for a teacher to teach a normal load of classes and arrange structured paid work experiences. Some have hired a work-based learning coordinator or reduced a teacher's load so they can take on this added responsibility. Whatever the arrangement, employers have said that it's critical to have a point person at the school with whom to work.
Identify Potential Students
Connecting students with work sites that will meet their needs and provide relevant experiences is the most important aspect of planning the structured paid work experience. The first step is to identify students who would be interested. Notify the students about the possibility of structured paid work experiences in the school's program of study. Talk to the teachers about how a work experience can support academic learning. Let all the students know who to talk to if they are interested. Once interested students are identified, do interest inventories and career exploration activities with them to identify an appropriate work site placement. Don't forget that many students already have jobs. You may find that students already employed could benefit from having the experience connected to the curriculum and earning credit towards graduation. If the employer and student are willing, a student's job could be restructured so to maximize the student's opportunities for learning about all aspects of the operation and to reinforce academic skills learned in the classroom. When appropriate, school activities and assignments take place in conjunction with the employment experience.
Develop Job Sites
A structured paid work experience is an intensive experience and requires a great deal of commitment from both the student and employer. It is the responsibility of the school-based coordinator to find individuals and organizations
who are willing to take on the responsibility of working with a student. Establish a pool of organizations that are possible work sites. Students may also identify possible sites on their own and some students may want to restructure
their current job into a structured paid work experience. A structured paid work experience is most successful when an employer has a task that really needs to be done and the experience is not just made-up work. Successful sites are a valuable resource that can be utilized over and over.
The school-based coordinator should arrange a work schedule that ensures student attendance to school work, has sufficient time to benefit from the structured paid work experience, and meets employer needs. It's best if the schedule is consistent from week to week so that the work site can prepare meaningful work experiences for the student and reinforce positive work habits.
Students need to be thoroughly prepared before embarking on a structured paid work experience. In addition to classroom preparation that focuses on needed academic skills, career research and exploration, and skills that will be applied at the work site, there are other concerns to be addressed as well.
• Educational links. The school-based coordinator, together with the student and academic teachers, must determine the learning objectives that are linked to academic standards. The school-based coordinator should identify the person or committee who has the authority in the school or district to approve academic credit for out-of-school experiences. It will be helpful to prepare a request for credit that includes the learning objectives and outlines what standards will be assessed through the structured paid work experience.
• Training plans. This plan outlines the responsibilities of the work site supervisor, the student, and the school-based coordinator. It includes the learning objectives which include academic skills, occupational skills, and/or employability skills the student will be practicing and acquiring. It outlines the specific goals and activities of the experience. The
plan should also contain any accommodations a student may need to be successful at the work site and state who is responsible for providing them. The plan acts as an agreement and should be carefully reviewed by parents/guardians, any relevant classroom teacher, the student, and the employer and should be signed by all.
• Outline of dress and behavior expectations. While classroom preparation for career exploration usually covers this information, work-based experiences offer a great opportunity to reinforce the message that dress and behavior standards in the workplace are different than those at school. Remind students that they are representing the school as well as themselves. The school-based coordinator should be aware of the dress code and any specific clothing or tool requirements at each work site.
• Evaluation. Student learning at the work site should be carefully assessed and documented throughout the experience. The school-based coordinator should provide students and employers with copies of the evaluation forms so that students can be informed about the basis of their evaluations. Ask students to evaluate paid work experience as well. Students should be encouraged to write or talk about their experience. Journal writing, special presentations, and projects are all appropriate. Whenever possible, students should use their experience as a basis for work in their other courses.
• Follow-up. Meet with the students on and off the work site to inquire about their satisfaction with the paid work experience. Asking specific questions related to the training plan will provide insight relative to the need for in-school or on-site training/skills development and need for employer contact.
Prepare Work Site Supervisors
The school-based coordinator first must work with the employer to choose an appropriate work site supervisor/mentor, someone who is willing to share their knowledge of job skills and likes working with young people. Work site supervisors must be thoroughly prepared for a structured paid work experience. Make sure they are aware of everything that they are expected to do. Many schools prepare a handbook or an instruction sheet for work site supervisors/mentors which contains the information they need. Other schools provide training for all work site supervisors. All need the following information.
• An overview of legal responsibilities. There are many legal issues that work site supervisors/mentors need to be aware of, such as safety concerns, child labor, discrimination, and sexual harassment laws. Make sure that work site supervisors understand their legal responsibilities and potential liabilities in advance. All paid work experiences are covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act and child labor laws. The work experience must comply with these laws. The school-based coordinator should ensure that all participating students are covered by accident insurance.
• Advice for working with young people. Many professionals are unaccustomed to the unique challenges of communicating and working with young people. Remind work site supervisors that they may be faced with student attitudes and expectations that may seem unrealistic in the workplace. Encourage work site supervisors/mentors to provide as many active learning experiences as possible, and to be direct in their communication of employer needs and expectations. Some employers put student/employees through the organization's orientation program. Employers should also be reminded that encouragement is a valuable training tool that will often increase student performance and motivation for job duties.
• Activity suggestions. Remind work site supervisors/mentors that the purpose of a structured paid work experience is to provide the students with an environment where learning can take place. Encourage mentors to allow students to participate in as many learning activities as possible, including staff meetings and trainings, and job tasks in all areas of the organization. Make sure that there are activities provided to the students that will allow them to learn the skills outlined in the training plan.
• Evaluation. Establish a mechanism for student supervision and evaluation. Be clear with the employer and work site supervisor/mentor who will be responsible for evaluating the student's performance and progress. Some employers prefer to use their own evaluation system with student/employees. Often the school-based coordinator can modify
the employer's system and forms so that both the employer's and school's evaluation needs are met. In some experiences, employers prefer to use the school's evaluation forms and procedures. In any case, before the student begins the structured paid work experience, review the evaluation system and materials with the student and employer and be clear who will be responsible for each part. Set up regularly scheduled times to conduct formal evaluations of the student's progress. Contact the employer and student prior to the evaluation in order for all to be prepared and to avoid any surprises. Remind employers and students that the evaluation should be a positive experience. The evaluation highlights the student's accomplishments and outlines plans for future training goals. The employer should also be given
a chance to evaluate the experience as a whole. This information will provide the basis for continuous improvement of future structured paid work experiences.
Connecting Structured Paid Work Experience to the Classroom
It is important to make the structured paid work experience meaningful by connecting it to classroom learning and academic standards. Connecting activities can take many forms and should take place at all stages of the paid work experience.
• Students research the general career fields and specific organizations in which they will be working.
• Students write about their preconceptions and expectations related to the organization in which their experiences will take place.
• Students and teachers discuss professional standards for behavior and dress.
• Teachers emphasize practical applications of the concepts and skills they teach in class.
• Students and teachers develop training plans which outline students' learning objectives.
• Students learn academic skills which they will use at the work site.
• Students learn actual job and employability skills by participating in work activities.
• Students observe and participate in practical applications of academic concepts.
• Students work toward achieving individual goals and objectives.
Seminars. Seminars provide students with opportunities to better understand their paid work experiences and enhance their learning. Curriculum can include:
• Job search skills and techniques (such as resume writing and interviewing skills);
• How to develop goals and objectives;
• Reflective assignments (such as weekly logs and journals);
• Education and discussion on workplace issues such as sexual harassment, workplace ethics, managing conflict, responding to criticism, labor laws, discrimination, and professionalism;
• Workplace skills and techniques related to student placements;
• Guest speakers;
• Round-table discussions;
• Collaborative learning activities;
• Term projects in which students extend beyond the work experience through in-depth investigation;
• Career exploration activities, including informational interviewing and research on continuing educational opportunities; and
• Development of portfolios which include a description of the work experience, agreements and training plans, photographs and descriptions of exemplary work or interesting experiences, resume, cover letter, evaluations, etc.
• Students write about the difference between their expectations and the reality of the workplace.
• Students and teachers discuss the connections they see between classroom learning and the workplace.
• Students and teachers together evaluate the student's progress toward meeting the learning objectives.
• Students continue their career research in light of what they have learned during the work experience.
• Students write, revise, and send thank you letters to the employer and the work site supervisor/mentor.