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When starting down the daunting trek of understanding the nature of scalable work-based learning (WBL) and why there seems to be a limit on how far it reaches throughout America— national, and even global logistics come into play to teach me a thing or two. 

Now here I am, doing my very best to simplify and briefly explain the journey of where it came from, where it’s at now, and (thinking optimistically) where it’s headed. According to The U.S. Department of Education,¹ work-based learning is an instructional strategy that enhances classroom learning by connecting it to the workplace.

One example of work-based learning is separating students from their standard high school coursework and providing them with a more customized curriculum. This builds a bridge to local employers where students can gain awareness, exposure, experience, and preparation for career pathways in the manufacturing field, all while receiving professional mentorship. Training programs, such as youth apprenticeships, can also lead to industry-recognized certifications that provide graduates with a competitive advantage when entering the workforce. GPSEd has been delivering this model of career development for students in Wisconsin for over 20 years and is now driving other work-based learning models throughout the midwest. I have the pleasure, and peril, of writing about this influential program and now tackling what it means to build more scalable models of work-based learning. Simply put, scalable means expanding and growing to reach as many students as possible; the goal of most, if not all, work-based learning programs.

We start by heading overseas to a true powerhouse nestled in central Europe. Welcome to Germany! Aside from their renowned variety of beer and massive pretzels, they are also regarded as having one of the most highly efficient industries, with their tech apprenticeships leading the way in peak global regard. But what are they doing differently to achieve this high remark? The relationship between their central government and their businesses allows for the highly evolved youth apprenticeships to flourish. Apprenticeships are mandated, universal to all businesses in the field, encouraged, and sought-after.

It’s easy from my backseat to sit here and say, “Come on America, here’s a thriving structure you can follow!” But with our localized government control and our cultural obsession with attending college, it would be a very slow process to even get to the point where we settle on one nationally followed definition of what work-based learning programs look like— much less to the point of having an apprenticeship résumé to one of Germany’s scale.

Speaking with GPSEd’s Chief Innovation Officer Andy Hepburn and Chief Operations Officer Billie Torrentt, I’m comfortable being the third-party messenger of their extensive knowledge of where we are nationally and where GPSEd fits into this overall WBL ecosystem. 

When asked what the main goal of GPSEd is today and what success looks like for an organization like ours, Billie brought in two potent words, “access and equity,” to which Andy added, “how do we make this [scalable work-based learning] accessible to all students?” According to Andy, in Wisconsin alone, there are thousands of high school apprenticeship programs. Add each program from the rest of the 49 states with the diversity of companies and pathways and it can seem clearer why state control is more prominent. 

“There are 50 states so there are many models of work-based learning,” says Andy, “As an example, Maryland and Tennessee have adopted state-wide models, but because there’s local control, there’s a battle for understanding where the lines are drawn.” It’s not just about state policy either. GPSEd works with the state government, but is by no means a part of that said government. Providing an intermediary service, GPSEd serves as the middleman between the government and those who use our services. So the question for us is, “how do we empower organizations like ours to be those powerful intermediaries?” asked Andy. For work-based learning intermediaries to succeed, we need to convene and integrate industry, education, and workforce development to effectively scale work-based learning opportunities. In this case, that is when all students will have access, equity, and a pathway to prosperity.

“There’s a complexity to scale. Executing work-based learning is not hard, executing it to scale is.” Andy mentions. This leads us into a deeper discussion to answer a question stemming from my own naivety, “well if everyone can agree that work-based learning programs have positive impacts on businesses, schools, and communities, then why don’t all businesses want to get involved, and mentor students.” In theory, and through blind optimism, it makes sense, but when you break it down with the components of running a business, there are many, dare I say, drawbacks for business owners to dive head first into this journey without the guidance of these work-based learning intermediaries.

Whether it be time or money based, a lot of small businesses can’t do this on a large scale. According to Andy, mentorships—such as youth apprenticeships—can include slower production times, needed supervision, risk, and added liability, and can ultimately, though rarer, be negative experiences for either or both parties. Another point that proves more challenging is that there is no guarantee for the employer that the student they mentor will continue their career with them. As life-changing as it is, there is a sacrifice to a business’s return on investment when allowing a student to “try on” a career as they could leave the industry when they decide it’s not for them.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that these are not reasons why work-based learning can’t work. These are reasons why, in America, it is more difficult to scale work-based learning and get everybody on the same page. Imagine a very large book titled Work-based Learning Programs in America, where each page represents a different program serving different students through different pathways. The diversity of these pages ranges from large agricultural programs such as GrassWorks which partners with Wisconsin’s rural farms to smaller in-house programs attached to local high schools such as the variety of pathway options within the Ozaukee Youth Apprenticeships in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin. That’s a lengthy book full of many differences.

While some of the challenges that occur are simply reality, remember the overpowering success and ability to change the lives of our youth that stems from a program such as GPSEd’s Manufacturing Youth Apprenticeship Program. Take a look at the outcomes of the most recent [2020/21] cohort of GPSEd graduates. It is important to note that when these students enrolled in this program, many were disengaged from their traditional coursework and were falling grade levels behind in many—in some cases all—of their classes. Not only did these students overcome their academic deficiencies through hands-on learning, but they also gained critical hard and soft skills that are in high demand by employers.

  • 95% Graduation Rate
  • 94% earned industry-recognized certifications
  • 95% earned their National Career Ready Certification
  • *93% earned youth apprenticeship certificates by completing a skills checklist from the Department of Workforce Development
  • *75% of graduates are pursuing or working in technical careers
  • *95% of graduates are working or attending post-secondary education full-time or doing both on a part-time basis

As challenging as it is—and will continue to be—to scale work-based learning in America to a similar scale as Germany’s, there are themes that students, parents, government officials, and everybody in between can agree on; access, equity, and the desire to provide this alternative so that all students can succeed. In my opinion, Billie said it best, “success is success, no matter who it comes from. Access and equity in education for all students IS our success.”

When asked if GPSEd was unique compared to other programs in Wisconsin, Andy replied, “There are two parts [to GPSEd]: working with at-risk students and following the manufacturing pathway. It’s unique that we put these two things together.” Our page in the book of Work-based Learning Programs in America is just one of many, but take all the students positively impacted by each program and add them up, well that’s one valuable book. I’d say it deserves a well-written sequel. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with traditional high school or wants to connect their learning to the real world of work, contact GPS Education Partners, or visit our website at gpsed.org. We are committed to advocating for each student’s needs, focusing on access and equity for all our youth to succeed in sustainable careers.

1 https://cte.ed.gov/wbltoolkit/
[*] 3-year average from 2018-2020

Written By

Alyssa Derpinghaus
GPS Education Partners

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