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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition: Creating opportunities for youth with disabilities to achieve successful futures.

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Frequently Asked Questions


Do work-based learning experiences vary?

Yes. Work-based learning experiences include various activities ranging from short-term introduction, such as job shadowing, to long-term intensive training and paid employment. Although local school personnel typically implement work-based learning programs, they may be designed by and for the district, region, or state.

Types of work-based learning activities might include:

  • Apprenticeship—a combination of on-the-job training and related classroom instruction in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation. Often joint employer-labor groups, individual employers, and/or employer associations sponsor apprenticeship programs.
  • Career academies—schools organized into small learning communities that aim to create a more personalized and supportive learning environment for students by combining academic and career-related competencies.
  • Internships—paid or unpaid programs in which students spend time in a business, industry, or other organization to gain insight and direct experience.
  • Job shadowing—an academically motivating activity designed to allow students to observe workplace mentors as they go through a normal day on the job. It allows students a close, personal look at the workplace.
  • School-based enterprises—programs in which students produce goods or services for sale.
  • Service learning—programs that combine meaningful community service with academic learning, personal growth, and civic responsibility.


How do students become involved in work-based learning?

If students are interested in participating in a work-based learning activity, they should contact their school’s work-experience coordinator or ask a teacher how to get involved. Students should have a general idea of the career area they would like to explore, but this is not necessary. It may be necessary, however, for students to develop or update their résumés to share with potential employers. Work-based learning experiences should also be discussed by a student’s Individual Education Program (IEP) team and included in the IEP.


How is the work-based learning experience for a student facilitated?

Typically, a young person is assigned to a workplace mentor—an employee of the company or another individual approved by the employer. Mentors may include co-workers, school or community agency-sponsored job coaches, work-study coordinators, or vocational coordinators. The workplace mentor possesses the skills and knowledge to be mastered by the student and helps to instruct the student on the tasks assigned to him or her. This person also critiques the student’s performance and serves as the contact for the classroom teacher and the student’s employer.


Should work-based learning experiences be part of students’ IEP/transition plans?

Yes. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all youth with disabilities, beginning at age 16, must have a transition plan in place as part of their IEP. At this time, the IEP team must work together to identify the transition service needs and goals of the student. The activities and services identified should ensure that youth with disabilities graduate with future employment plans or training based on their goals.

Transition planning activities might include career assessment, work-based learning experiences, and employment. Once these goals are identified, they must be included as part of the student’s IEP.


Does work-based learning occur exclusively in the workplace?

No. Both academic and occupational instructions are needed to achieve work-based learning skills and standards. Apprenticeships are an example of combining classroom learning and on-the-job training. These types of learning activities will help the young person relate real-life work experiences to classroom instruction.


What are the benefits of work-based learning for students with disabilities?

Work-based learning experiences can help students

  • clarify their career choices,
  • develop positive work attitudes and behaviors,
  • identify necessary work accommodations and supports,
  • learn general workplace readiness skills as well as job-specific skills, and
  • network with potential employers.

In addition, students are given a context to apply practical theories learned in the classroom, develop human relations skills through interaction with co-workers, and gain exposure to diverse working environments. Students can also develop job search skills, résumés, and cover letters.


Who in the community is involved in work-based learning experiences, and what are the benefits to participation?

Work-based learning experiences are most effective when members of the community work together collaboratively to meet their local needs by offering occupational learning and career exposure activities. A work-based learning partnership typically consists of community members and organizations, employers, labor organizations, parents, schools, and students.

Partners should be offered several possible paths of involvement, and their degree of commitment should be consistent with their capacities and interests. Once committed, the role of the partner should be clarified, and they should be supported through continual communication.

It is important when recruiting partners to demonstrate the benefit of participating. These benefits may include an opportunity to participate in shaping curriculum, access to pre-screened applicants who are supported and trained by school personnel, and an opportunity to develop specific training programs backed by academic instruction. Students also bring fresh ideas and new perspectives.


What are some other ways employers can get involved in work-based learning besides providing a work-site experience for youth?

Work-based learning offers employers a variety of ways to get involved besides offering a work-site experience for a young person. In any community, a good cross-section of employers is needed to make work-based learning a reality. Employers can offer various services, including:

  • assisting in the development of curriculum and instruction plans,
  • helping recruit instructors in specific professional and technical fields,
  • volunteering to team-teach or teach where there is a need,
  • providing state-of-the-art equipment and materials,
  • opening up their facilities for actual instruction on-site, and
  • serving as mentors.


Who is responsible for paying for work-based learning accommodations?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disability in the workplace. Employers must provide job accommodations to otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities and are therefore financially responsible if the individual is directly employed and receiving a wage. However, in work-based learning programs, the coordinating school or agency may assume or share in the costs associated with the accommodations. The school or community agency should work with the employer to ensure that students with disabilities receive appropriate accommodations at the job site and to determine the financial responsibilities.


What liability issues arise with work-based learning?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) regulations that apply in the workplace for adults also apply to youth, whether technically employed or not. All youth in the workplace must be provided training, protective equipment, and other health and safety precautions. The employer and school district need to work together to coordinate the delivery of safety instruction.

Youth in paid work-based learning experiences should be covered under the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance. Youth in unpaid work experiences cannot be covered by the employer’s workers’ compensation plan. However, because work-based learning experiences are considered an extension of classroom learning, they are usually protected by the school district’s liability policies. School districts or employers can obtain special coverage applicable to students in the workplace. If this is the case, a written agreement should be put into place specifying the terms of the insurance requirements (e.g., hold harmless statements, responsibility for supervision, and liability and coverage for the student).

If a student is injured in an accident in transport to the work site, the liability typically rests with the party responsible for the transportation. That is, if students are driving a personally owned car, they are liable; if they take public transportation, the school district is liable; and if they are transported in a company-owned vehicle, the employer is liable.

Although work-based learning experiences are typically designed at the local level, the legal obligations and remedies involved are largely governed by state laws. Always research state laws, regulations, and policies.

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This page was last updated on November 29, 2017.