Most students base their career aspirations on the jobs held by members of their family, those they interact with regularly, and figures in the media to whom they can relate. As a result, while most high schoolers say they know what career they want to pursue, only 36% of high school graduates choose majors that fit their interests and strengths. Schools must help students move past this narrow lens and provide them with opportunities to explore a broader range of postsecondary paths.
Experiential career exploration is valuable but challenging to implement at scale
In recent years, internships and apprenticeships (commonly referred to as “work-based learning”) have gained popularity as an important part of the solution. Opportunities to experience the day-to-day reality of various jobs can help students expand their horizons and refine their career interests before investing in college credits or professional certificates.
Students who see how their learning connects to future careers are also more engaged in school. In fact, in a survey of students who never completed high school, 81% wished that their schools had helped them see the connection between school and getting a job. Studies have also shown that students are 9% more likely to graduate when they are involved in career-based projects.
Many districts now offer work-based learning programs. However, several barriers frequently limit these programs to serving only a handful of students. Crowded academic schedules leave little time for extracurricular activities, many schools have a limited number of local businesses available to partner with, and few districts have public transportation systems that can quickly and safely carry students to employer sites.
Obstacles to Work-Based Learning at a Rural School
Transportation to places of work
Access to a network of professionals
Proximity to high demand industries
Rural district deploys digital tools to enable virtual work-based learning
Cross County Schools in rural Arkansas faces all these challenges. The nearest city—Memphis, Tennessee—is over an hour away, and the only local businesses are a bank, a gas station, and a car wash. Knowing that their students needed options that would equip them to explore and test a broader range of potential careers, Cross County administrators designed a virtual work-based learning program that engaged 98% of their junior class in solving real-world, complex challenges with mentors from some of the most renowned companies across the country. The approach outlined below is simple but brilliant.
- First, Cross County administrators asked students to complete a short survey about their career interests.
- Next, they gathered a pool of potential mentors by asking each staff member to submit at least five names from their networks.
- The vice principal reached out to these candidates through a simple form that requested their participation.
- Finally, the Cross County Schools staff matched students with mentors whose job best fit the student’s expressed career interests.
- Once matched, mentors worked with students for six weeks, communicating through a free online video platform such as Skype. The students and mentors tracked progress using a shared digital template created by school administrators, which allowed mentors to provide continuous feedback in writing as well as during video conferences.
Mentors presented students with business challenges that they or their colleagues were currently grappling with, and students were then asked to propose and develop potential solutions. Projects ranged from designing a new interview process for Google’s human resources department to welding a pipe frame for a vehicle to developing a business plan for a new virtual health care service.
In case you’re wondering how much this impressive program cost to facilitate, the district invested an average of merely $7 per student.
Virtual work-based learning expands breadth and depth of students’ career exposure
This creative use of technology enabled Cross County Schools to overcome its geographic limitations and connect students to more than 50 professional mentors all over the country. One student even partnered with a company in Belgium!
Sample of Industry-Specific Projects
Devise an interview for Google’s human resources department
Design and weld a pipe frame for a vehicle
Prototype an oscillating circuit to be used in a research lab at Virginia Tech
The virtual work-based learning program exposed students to industries they previously knew little about, and many participants were able to clarify which careers they did or did not want to pursue after high school. It was also important for students to see their solutions put to work in professional organizations and know that their efforts had purpose and real-world impact.
Virtual work-based learning made it possible for students to explore careers with world-class organizations in many different industries—all while in rural Arkansas. This is just one of many low-cost practices that can help districts prepare students for college and careers. But virtual internships are not just beneficial for students in a traditional learning environment. The entire program can be launched and managed virtually, offering an option for all districts to improve remote students’ career readiness during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.