A Status Report on Work-Based Learning in Construction
In 2018, the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) released results from a three-year research project that explored how the United States could best invest resources to rebuild our nation’s skilled workforce.
The report, Restoring the Dignity of Work: Transforming the U.S. Workforce Development System into a World Leader (RT 335), was the result of work by NCCER, IW/IMPACT, Construction Users Roundtable, and the Construction Industry Institute.
Seven policies (four short term and three long term) were identified in the research that were recommended for implementation by education, industry, and government. One short-term goal was to revitalize work-based learning programs.
Work-based learning involves interaction between education and industry, providing learning opportunities in real workplace settings or simulated in order to provide learners the chance to experience tasks required in a given career field. We know that CTE programs have a positive impact on labor market transitions of young adults, and CTE students reportedly are more likely to develop skills such as problem solving, math, communication, employability skills and critical thinking during high school than their non-CTE counterparts. However, new approaches to work-based learning are needed to successfully turn the tide on workforce development in this country.
As we prepare to recognize Career and Technical Education month in February, in December 2022 NCCER asked CTE instructors who are members of our NCCER Craft Instructor Forum on LinkedIn to give us a status report on work-based learning in their regions. Work-based learning includes DOL-registered apprenticeships, unregistered apprenticeships, internships, co-ops, and similar types of education-industry partnerships. While the sample comes from a small group, their answers are anecdotally indicative of what we are seeing and hearing about CTE and work-based learning in the media and from industry professionals.
The people responding to our informal survey represented post-secondary and secondary institutions, industrial training centers, and contractors.
Concerns About Work-Based Learning in 2018 and Today
Work-based learning was and is thriving in four-year post-secondary schools for programs like engineering and construction management, but in 2018 many high schools had seen a drop in the availability of all kinds of work-based learning—not just for construction. Among two-year community colleges and technical schools there was significant variability depending on the region.
The challenge for construction, particularly at the high school level, are safety regulations limiting the type of work-based learning that students could participate in. It also takes a lot of local infrastructure for school systems to create a network of industry partners and to facilitate placement of students into work-based learning environments.
In industry itself, the apprenticeship model is excellent and has proven successful, but the challenge is just that we need more of them. In an article from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Julie Davis, AEM Senior Director of Workforce and Industry Initiatives, said: “The government funded the Apprenticeship Building America grants program to the tune of $121.7 million dollars in 2022. Why? Because apprenticeship and work-based learning programs done right continue to be a proven way to train, attract and retain workers.” NCCER provides contractors and industry partners like the Steel Erectors Association of America with the resources and curriculum to establish training, testing, and certifications.
Based on input from our survey participants (n=18), availability of work-based learning is improving. Seventy-two percent of respondents reported that in their region work-based learning was either “somewhat available” or “widely available”. Only 6% reported that work-based learning was unavailable in their region. However, when asked to describe the current state of work-based learning in their region using one word the the answers given were: Minimal. Lacking. Failed. Underutilized. Ineffective. No Mentors. Misunderstood. Declining.
Glimmers of Hope + a Reality Check
Respondents indicated that for those institutions that are incorporating work-based learning, the result is positive. Most felt that the quality of work-based learning was average or better and most also believed that their institution’s education curriculum aligned with the needs of industry. Another measure of quality and alignment is how many students are considered career ready. Half of the respondents reported that most of their students are career ready upon graduation.
Work-based learning as an instructional tool is critical for career readiness, especially at the high school level. Now more than ever, fewer teenagers are working in part time jobs, which provides opportunities for gaining basic skills related to career readiness—showing up on time, dealing with customers, communicating with co-workers. While teen summer employment rates have rebounded since the pandemic in 2020, the total numbers are well below what they were prior to 2001. Last summer, only about 36% of teens had paid summer jobs.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Teen summer employment remains well below where it was before the turn of the 21st century. As recently as 2000, the average teen summer employment rate was 51.7%. This makes the need for work-based learning opportunities all the more acute.
Successful implementation requires support of administration leaders to drive the initiative at the local level. Examples from our respondents of “wins” and “barriers to success” represent mirror images of each other.
|What are examples of a “win” or “success” that you have experienced in your CTE program in the last three years||What is the most significant barrier to improving your CTE program?|
|A commitment from district or school administration to produce career ready students.||Finding employees who want to work, show up, and if they do, have the necessary math and reading skills.|
|Greater commitment of funding for CTE programs.||Not enough money for projects or for increasing class size.|
|An increase in adoption of work-based learning.
|Making learning more dynamic and work oriented.
Teachers stuck in the old way of teaching, or teaching how they were taught 30-50 years ago.
|An increase of underrepresented groups in CTE programs.||Lack of students.|
|Greater participation in industry-education partnerships.||Connections between CTE and Industry.
Industry wants to only hire people with 2-5 years hands on experience, connections between CTE and industry.
Expectations from industry for experienced individuals that we cannot produce without real-world, on-the-job training.
It’s ok for educators to take small steps, expanding their programs as the need dictates and where support exists. Start with designing work-based learning program to align with educational objectives and that incorporate performance metrics. The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) provides resources that can help establish a framework for what makes up a high quality CTE program. The framework provides program objectives, program assessments, and tools for program improvement. NCCER offers curriculum and assessments that enable educators to create a standardized approach to CTE.
Get industry involved when and where you can, but consider conserving resources based on job demand. Two examples where education has done a good job of this is the Jump Start program by the Louisiana Department of Education. In these examples, the states allocate funding and evaluate success based on job demand and available worker supply in their states.
To help connect industry and education, last year NCCER launched a new website with a Connection Map. Training providers can list their program and contractors can express interest in providing work-based learning opportunities or donating materials. It’s a little like an online dating match website!
Other resources include tips on planning a career pathways event, how to build an advisory board, and a guide for effective collaboration between industry and education.
The availability of work-based learning appears to be improving but more progress is needed in the quality of the programs. Given the current workforce shortages across most industries, now is a great time for schools to leverage industry participation to improve work-based learning within their CTE programs.
The National Center for Construction Education & Research is a nonprofit 501()3 education foundation created in 1996. NCCER exists to build a safe, productive and sustainable workforce of craft professionals by providing universally recognized training, assessment, certification and career development for construction and maintenance craft professionals. Learn more at NCCER.org. Among its workforce development initiatives are Build Your Future at byf.org, Construction Career Pathways, and Hard Hat Heroes.