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Information Brief

Addressing Trends and Developments in Secondary Education and Transition

October 2003 • Vol. 2, Issue 2

Work-Based Learning and Future Employment for Youth: A Guide for Parents and Guardians

By Meredith Gramlich, Kelli Crane, Kris Peterson, and Pam Stenhjem


Setting high expectations early in life is an important step in order for youth to develop the skills to succeed in the future. Work-based learning is one way youth can identify interests, strengths, skills, and needs related to career development. A hands-on experience in a real setting, work-based learning includes a broad range of opportunities including short-term introductory activities such as job shadowing, informational interviews, and workplace tours, as well as more long-term and intensive training including workplace mentoring, apprenticeships, and paid employment. Volunteer work, service learning, and activities at a student’s school site can also provide rich, work-based learning opportunities. Potential benefits of work-based learning for youth while they are still in school include:

  • identification of career interests, skills, and abilities;
  • exposure to job requirements and responsibilities, employer expectations, workplace etiquette, and workplace dynamics;
  • development of critical workplace skills and a solid foundation for good work habits;
  • improvement of postschool outcomes; and
  • selection of appropriate courses of study tied to career goals.

Challenges and Strategies for Successful Work-Based Learning Experiences

Research has demonstrated that work-based learning is one of the best ways to improve outcomes for youth with disabilities in secondary education (Hughes, Moore, & Bailey, 1999). Youth who participate in such experiences have the opportunity to receive more individual guidance and support that will prepare them for successful adult employment. Youth with disabilities often face challenges that make it difficult to achieve successful employment as adults. These challenges are outlined below with proven strategies related to work-based learning that can be used to address them.


Students do not see or understand a clear connection between what they are learning in school and expectations on the job.

Strategy for Success

A connection needs to be made between work experiences, appropriate work behavior, and student learning. Work-based learning offers young people meaningful hands-on learning opportunities by connecting classroom learning with work experience. This kind of learning opportunity can help a young person make better career decisions, select more appropriate courses of study, and develop job skills relevant to future employment. Through combined work and study experiences, students can enhance their academic knowledge, strengthen work skills, and increase their understanding of the workplace, achieving both personal development and professional preparation.

Work-based learning experiences can have a positive impact on school achievement and outcomes. Students who participate in work-based learning show an increase in completion of related coursework as well as an increase in attendance and graduation rates (Colley & Jamison, 1998). Work-based learning during secondary school also leads to higher rates of adult employment success for all categories of disability (Luecking & Fabian, 2000).


Students lack the basic employability skills necessary for career success.

Strategy for Success

Early work-based learning experiences can help students build crucial job-keeping skills or soft skills. Many employers report that they want employees who are ready and eager to learn, show respect, and take their job commitment seriously. While jobs in today’s economy require that employees be able to solve problems, use technology, and be proficient in reading, writing, math, and speaking skills, it is the soft skills that seem to make the difference in whether or not an employer hires and keeps someone on the job (Bremer & Madzar, 1995; Rentner, 2001). Specifically, employers want employees who display positive social skills including a strong work ethic, self-discipline, self-respect, a friendly demeanor, and reliability (Bremer & Madzar, 1995). Table 1 provides a sample list of the soft skills employers typically expect from workers.

Employers expect and demand professionalism from their employees. Students need to be responsible for their behavior and performance on the job. Young people have a responsibility to do the job, communicate their needs, follow through on commitments, follow directions, and learn as much as they can about the work environment and the job (Gramlich, 1999a). Including goals that address the development of job-keeping skills in students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) will increase their chances of success once they enter the adult world of work. Students and their IEP team can develop work-based learning goals to support proficiency in these soft skills. This may include mentoring from an employee at the worksite, one-on-one guidance from teachers and adult mentors, role-playing, and group problem-solving sessions among students.

Table 1. Employer Expectations of Student Workers

The student worker should:

  • Come to work on time
  • Be a team player
  • Be positive (don’t complain or whine)
  • Ask for help when needed
  • Be courteous and friendly
  • Use office equipment for work-related tasks only
  • When voicing concerns, be constructive (not accusatory)
  • Complete all work neatly and accurately
  • Show respect for yourself and others
  • Keep personal telephone calls to a minimum
  • Take personal responsibility
  • Stay on task and complete all work in a timely manner
  • Come to work appropriately dressed
  • Keep personal visits to a minimum
  • Be reliable and follow through
  • Ask for more work when tasks are complete
  • Use good personal hygiene
  • Keep absences to a minimum and be sure to call in when sick
  • Work HARD!


Students’ IEPs do not include clearly defined and appropriate work-based learning opportunities.

Strategy for Success

The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act supports the practice of providing work experiences to youth with disabilities while still in high school (Storms, O’Leary, & Williams 2000). Students must gain the necessary skills and competencies they need in order to achieve success in adult life. Work-based learning experiences help students to achieve their desired goals in career preparation. Young adults and their families should be included as participants in the planning process so that work-based experiences match their desired interests and career goals.


Students are not actively involved in their career and transition planning, as well as their selection of work-based learning opportunities.

Strategy for Success

At the Third National Forum on Education: Education and Life—Transitions, the New Brunswick (Canada) Youth Apprenticeship Program identified student responsibility as an essential element within the transition process. It developed a contract in which students agree to: “Accept and assume responsibility for preparing their future involvement in the workplace, by making informed choices about employment prospects based on an assessment of their abilities and potential, and by making every effort to acquire and improve the required employability and specialized skills” (CMEC, 1998, p. 16). Assessments to inform transition planning for youth and families can clarify the shift from classroom to work-based learning.

Moreover, young adults must also develop competency in the areas of self-advocacy and leadership. These skills can be learned and practiced through successful work-based learning experiences and will help young adults take responsibility in their career development and employment as well as other areas of their lives. Self-advocacy and leadership identified as goals on students’ IEPs may help them be responsible, competent, and ultimately successful in their future employment endeavors.


Lack of family involvement and support for work-based learning as a part of career and transition planning.

Strategy for Success

Throughout elementary and middle school, many families focus on success in a classroom or in remedial interventions for reading, writing, and math. When the question is raised about community and work-based learning, many families do not see it as part of the school experience. However, families play a key role as job developers and advocates in marketing their children’s skills and abilities. Parents and family should look within their own networks—neighbors, colleagues, and extended family members—to seek opportunities for their children. Networks are often excellent sources for initial work-based learning experiences because of the personal connections.

IEP teams may help families to become advocates and utilize their networks by:

  • including them as equal partners in the transition planning process;
  • supporting family in taking a leadership role in the development of their child’s IEP; and
  • including work-based learning experiences in the IEP.

Family members need solid support, good resources, and one-on-one assistance from teachers and school staff to heighten their ability to make a difference with regard to their child’s career development experience.=


Students and families lack adequate knowledge of work incentives that apply to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and they fear that any employment will result in loss of benefits.

Strategy for Success

Transition planning team members (teachers, rehabilitation counselors, human service social workers) need accurate information regarding Social Security work incentives and the impact of wages on benefits. One of the best ways to accomplish this is for schools to make connections with employment specialists at the nearest Social Security office or through benefits analysis organizations available in some states. Students and families can make informed choices about work-based learning and employment if they know about the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE), Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS), Impairment Related Work Expense (IRWE), and the new rules regarding SSDI and maintaining medical assistance. A benefits analysis professional or employment specialist may calculate the impact of wages on benefits for the student and family and present that information at an IEP meeting. In addition, families also need knowledge regarding how to report employment to the Social Security Administration when a student has worked for several years as part of his or her IEP.


As illustrated by Christian’s story, work-based learning opportunities can lead to successful employment outcomes. Real-world work experiences provide youth with an opportunity to develop not only work skills but also an understanding of the workplace. Varied and multiple exposures to the world of work can help to shape future work goals and habits. Work-based learning experiences are part of the career preparation that allows students to achieve their desired goals. Work-based learning experiences contribute to successful transition and ultimately, success in adult employment. Youth, their families, and IEP teams need to work together to ensure quality work-based learning experiences—tailored to individual interests, skills, and needs.

Student Success Story

At age 15, Christian did not have the academic skills to compete in the classroom, and he was feeling very defeated in the school environment. Christian was independent in the community and had some very good job skills. He was from a large family, and taking responsibility for chores was part of his daily activities at home. Then Christian started work-based learning.

As part of his education and IEP, Christian spent most of the school day at community job sites. For almost two years, his work was unpaid, although some jobs were funded through Carl Perkins funds. Some of his jobs were in food service, mail distribution, grounds keeping, and retail work. Once on the job and earning money, Christian increased his math skills and kept a checkbook with fairly good accuracy. He loved working and being out in the community.

By age 18, Christian had many good job skills and work habits. A person-centered planning meeting was held with his family, the school staff, rehabilitation services, and county human services staff. Christian wanted to be a chef, and although he could not complete the full chef program at the technical college, Christian participated in the hands-on components of the chef program for two years. He improved his cutlery handling skills and has been employed as a prep chef ever since.

Now a grown man, Christian is living in an apartment with a roommate, making $9.75 an hour, working 35 hours a week, and no longer receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Most importantly, he feels productive and has good self-esteem.

“My son really needed to feel that he was good at something,
that he could learn and do a job independently.
He also needed a more hands-on learning experience.”

– Kris Peterson, Christian’s mom


Bremer, C. D., & Madzar, S. (1995). Encouraging employer involvement in youth apprenticeship and other work-based learning experiences for high school youth. Journal of Vocational and Technical Education, 12(1), 15-26. Retrieved February 12, 2003, from

Colley, D. A., & Jamison, D. (1998). Post school results for youth with disabilities: Key indicators and policy implications. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 21, 145-160.

Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (1998, May). The relevance of education to the world of work, with a focus on youth employment. Retrieved February 12, 2003, from; Also available in pdf, at

Gramlich, M. (1999a). How to facilitate workplace mentoring: A guide for teachers to support employers and student workers. Rockville, MD: TransCen, Inc.

Gramlich, M. (1999b). Workplace mentoring: A guide for employers to support student workers. Rockville, MD: TransCen, Inc.

Hughes, K. L., Moore, D. T., & Bailey, T. R. (1999). Work-based learning and academic skills. Retrieved October 12, 2004, from

Luecking, R. G, & Fabian, E. S. (2000). Paid internships and employment success for youth in transition. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 23, 205-222.

Storms, J., O’Leary, E., & Williams, J. (2000). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 transition requirements: A guide for states, districts, schools, universities, and families. Retrieved February 12, 2003, from

Further Reading

Bailer, A., & Silva, T. (1988, December). Work-based learning: A practical approach for developing student activities. Presentation at the American Vocational Association Annual Convention, New Orleans, LA.

Bissonnette, D. (1994). Beyond traditional job development. Chatsworth, CA: Milt Wright & Associates.

Hart, D., Cohen, R., & Kommisar, C. (1996). Moving on: Planning for the future. Boston: Institute for Community Inclusion.  

Hoerner, J. L., & Wehrley, J. B. (1995). Work-based learning: The key to school-to-work transition. New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

Jobs for the Future, & New Ways to Work. (2001). The intermediary guidebook: Making and managing community connections for youth. Retrieved February 12, 2003, from 2001.pdf

Mason, S. (1996). Critical issue: Developing work-based learning opportunities. Retrieved February 12, 2003, from

Web Resources

Job Accommodation Network

National Centre for Work Based Learning Partnerships


Authors Meredith Gramlich and Kelli Crane are with TransCen, Inc.; Kris Peterson and Pam Stenhjem are with NCSET.

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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.

This publication is available in an alternate format upon request. To request an alternate format or additional copies, contact NCSET at 612.624.2097.


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