Unpaid Work Experience


Unpaid work experience is a limited-term opportunity, longer than a job shadow, for students to learn about a particular occupation or industry by working at a specific workplace. Students may spend short periods of time in each job and also rotate into related areas. These unpaid placements allow career exploration and provide in-depth knowledge of the day-to-day activities and skills needed to perform a job successfully.  It is legal for a student to spend short periods of time in activities learning specific skills, then spend another short period of time within the same company in a different area, learning a different set of skills. This is to protect the student and maintain her/his status as a trainee.

In Vermont, an unpaid work experience opportunity through Career & Technical Education Centers is also known as a Career Work Experience (CWE).

Internships are distinguished from other unpaid work experiences due to the fact that they are linked with a specific academic preparation experience.

Difference between a trainee and employee:
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)'s distinguishes when an individual becomes an employee and needs to be compensated for their work.  The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has developed six factors to evaluate whether a worker is a trainee or an employee for purposes of the FLSA. This list can be found at:

Unpaid Work-Based Learning CriteriaThrough Vermont Career and Technical Education Centers' Co-op Guidelines, the Career Work Experience (unpaid work-based learning) meets the following criteria:
• Student age is 16 years minimum
• An employer evaluation is expected
• A training plan is written
• School credit is recommended
• A training agreement is signed by all parties
• Evaluation responsibility by co-op/student apprenticeship coordinator
• No wages are earned by student
• Proof of accident insurance is necessary
• Workers' compensation is not applicable because the experience is unpaid
• Minimum hours: three hours per day (30 hours per site)
• May take place during or after school
• General work-related instruction and occupational instruction is included
(Source: Adapted from A Handbook for Cooperative Education/Student Apprenticeship Coordinators, Vermont Agency of Education)

Benefits to Students
Unpaid work experiences can offer students a variety of opportunities to understand today's work and the link between learning and earning. A student can develop more interest in school because of an increased awareness of how academic skills are related to success on the job. Students develop an awareness of career opportunities and are given the chance to learn basic employability skills.

Benefits to Schools and Employers
Developing unpaid work experiences brings schools and local employers together to work on a common goal. Schools become more aware of the skills that students need in a particular career field. Unpaid work experiences may also allow schools to expand available training opportunities, especially in areas where no institutional programs are available.

Setting Up an Unpaid Work Experience
Create a Database of Possible Employers
Start with employers that you know. Always use personal contacts whenever possible in a company and let them introduce you to the right person that can make a decision about letting a student into their work environment. This is sometimes the owner, sometimes the personnel manager, and may even be a department or floor supervisor. Possible sources of local businesses are Rotary clubs, merchants or business associations, chambers of commerce, parent/teacher organizations, school volunteers, local workforce investment boards, or STW coordinators. Check with your co-workers to see what their spouses do for employment. There are also many successful, small, home-based businesses in Vermont that offer unique opportunities for students interested in a wide range of careers from software development to the arts.

Meet with Potential Students
Determine their interests and talk about possible options. If an interest inventory has not been done yet, this would be a good time to do one. Find out if the student has any specific businesses in mind and if they know a contact there. Get a copy of their class schedule and check on times they would be available such as during study halls or early release days.

Meet with the Employer
Meet with the employer to determine if the job site will be a good match for the student. Observe work site safety, interaction between workers and supervisors, and make sure the employer understands this is a career exploration/training experience for the student. Prepare the supervisor for the expectations and differences of working with students instead of adults. Arrange an interview or meeting for both the student and employer where they can get to know each other, and have the student take a tour of the business. Let the employer know this placement is on a trial basis to see if it's workable, and that you are available anytime if there are questions. Building a trusting relationship with the employer is extremely important. Give the employer copies of the evaluation form and any other public relations materials you have about your program. Leave the employer your number, e-mail or business card for easy reference.

Prepare an Education/Training Plan (where applicable)
The education/training plan should provided clear expectations of what skills the student will be expected to learn during the unpaid work experience. Determine with the student their learning objectives and link them to standards. Include a schedule of anticipated hours to be worked. Have both parties sign the agreement. The training plan should contain elements of school-based learning related to the training. For example, a student might prepare a presentation that will be given at the end of the experience. S/he might keep a journal, write an article for the school newspaper, or do further research on related careers.

Ensure Proper Insurance Coverage
Make sure that the student is covered with proper insurance. Your school may have a school-to-work rider on its liability policy, catastrophic coverage for the whole school, or some other arrangement. Know what it is! There are safety considerations in arranging unpaid work experiences, such as appropriate clothing and safe transportation to the job site. Be sure a risk management system is in place and possible problems are thought out before placing a student in a job site.

Create a File
Create a file of important paperwork relative to the unpaid work experience. Put together packets for the employer, the student, and your files that include copies of proof of accident insurance, parental permission for the student's participation in the activity, a training plan, a student evaluation sheet, emergency treatment permission, and names, phone numbers, and addresses for the student, employer, and coordinator. You might also note transportation arrangements and proof of car insurance if the student is being transported in a private vehicle.

Review Progress
Review progress with both the student and employer on a regular basis. Communication is extremely important in maintaining a good relationship with both. You should know if a problem is brewing and be able to deal with it before you damage your relationship with an employer. In a rural state such as Vermont, we must protect the limited resources we have, as well as offer students a quality experience that will keep them interested and learning. Make work site visits at least bi-weekly, dropping by to say hello while the student is at the job.

Evaluation and Reflection
When the unpaid work experience is completed, set up a time to evaluate the experience with the student and employer. Ask the employer and the student to complete evaluation forms. Use the information for continuous program improvement. Ask each student to reflect on what was learned, referring back to the training/education plan, and to demonstrate knowledge gained.

Follow Up
Write a thank you note to the business owner and the student's supervisor at the end of the placement. At the end of the year, consider hosting a "thank you celebration" for all employers and students who participated. Invite employers to school to talk about their businesses with interested classes. Include them in career fairs. Check in with them regularly, even if you don't have a student currently placed there.

Connecting Unpaid Work Experience to the Classroom 
It is important to make the unpaid work experience meaningful by connecting it to classroom learning. Connecting activities can take many forms and should take place at all stages of the unpaid work experience.

Pre-experience Activities
• Students research the general career fields and specific organizations in which they will be working.
• Students write about their preconceptions and expectations for the work experience.
• Students prepare questions based on their research and writings to ask their work site supervisors.
• 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 a training plan which outlines the student's learning objectives.

On-site Activities
• Students ask the work site supervisor about the ways in which different academic subjects relate to their work.
• Students observe practical applications of academic concepts.
• Students learn actual job and employability skills by participating in activities at the work site.
• Students ask the work site supervisor about their career paths and suggestions they have for others who are interested in the field.

Post-experience Activities
• Students write about the differences between their expectations and the realities of the workplace.
• Students and teachers discuss the connections they see between classroom learning and the workplace.
• Students write, revise, and send thank you letters to employers.
• Students and teachers together evaluate the student's progress toward their learning objectives.
• Students continue their career research in light of what they have learned during the unpaid work experience.

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Page Last Updated on December 4, 2014