This post was originally published by WestEd’s Center for Economic Mobility.

By Phyllis Pistorino, Svetlana Darche, and Kerry Sherman Headington

In this blog post, we explain the elements and perceived positive impacts of work-based learning, and explore an exciting professional development course that WestEd created for community college faculty to facilitate work-based learning in their courses.

Many of us can remember a time in school when we thought, “When will I ever use this?” Today’s students are no different: a recent Wiley study found that a substantial number of students feel disengaged because they don’t see the connections between coursework and their real lives. Students seek not only relevant, real-world experiences, but also learning that is dynamic and interactive. Additionally, students are concerned with finding a future career that they enjoy, while providing them with a meaningful way to contribute to the world.

What can educators do to foster engagement and a sense of purpose in students? Work-based learning (WBL) is an instructional strategy that supports all students’ learning while preparing them for future careers. The benefits of WBL are myriad: students can build social capital; develop “soft skills,” also known as 21st Century Skills; discover their career interests; begin to define their roles in society; and, most importantly, gain real-world experience. All this can boost their confidence and make them more valuable to employers, ultimately jumpstarting students’ economic mobility, or a person’s ability to earn a living wage and improve their economic status over the course of their lifetime. Both K-12 and college students benefit from WBL, as research shows that starting WBL from an early age provides better outcomes for postsecondary success and career readiness.

Employers also benefit by helping to shape their future workforce. Recent surveys have found that employers are seeking stronger 21st Century Skills in their new hires, namely problem solving, critical thinking, professionalism, communication skills, and adaptability, among others. Employers are increasingly seeking candidates with proven work experience for entry-level jobs; those with internships and other work experience will beat out candidates with only credentials. This movement, called “skills-based hiring,” highlights just how important contextual learning strategies like WBL are as more companies move toward this practice.

What Is WBL? Learning About, Through, and For Work

WBL operates on a continuum ranging from basic career awareness activities, such as guest speakers and job shadowing, to more involved experiences, such as internships, apprenticeships, and paid work placements. It requires a direct connection to curriculum and instruction, as well as first-hand engagement with the tasks of a given career field. While WBL used to be mainly associated with career and technical education (CTE), it’s now prevalent in both secondary and postsecondary institutions, for all students, across disciplines. The following continuum image illustrates the different levels of WBL and how students may progress through WBL activities to build career awareness, engage in career interactions, and participate in career training experiences.


Work-based learning (WBL) continuum describing the three stages of WBL: career awareness and exploration where students learn about work; career interactions, where students learn through work; and career training experiences, where students learn for work.
Work-Based Learning Continuum


As depicted in the WBL continuum image, students begin to explore careers by learning about work through brief encounters with employers and workplaces. At the second level, students engage deeply with professionals and employers, learning through work, involving the production of goods or services, which supports and expands their classroom learning. The final level, career training experiences, allows students to learn for work, by applying their knowledge in preparation for employment in specific occupations. This process can be cyclical over a lifetime, as students transition from schooling into their first jobs, and then into new occupations and careers as their life progresses.

Beginning with career awareness and exploration allows students to ease into their understanding of careers. An important aspect of WBL is that it allows students to visualize themselves at work. Students need reassurance from people already working in the profession that they can “belong” in that profession. Exposure to work culture and norms, such as how employees behave at work or what they talk about during downtime, can help students understand how they might fit in and bring their own identities and ideas to work.

WBL Supports Equity

Students who participate in WBL gain valuable mentorship and supervision from education and professional leaders, building connections that they may not otherwise have access to, thereby expanding horizons and opening doors to future opportunities that support economic mobility. Students are able to learn and demonstrate their skills and talents in ways that are not always possible in class. Research shows that students who participate in quality WBL are more likely than their peers to get a college-level job and stay in college-level jobs. While unemployment levels for Black and Hispanic or Latino young people remain high, particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the good news is that student participation in WBL coursework is high among the same groups, providing these students with equitable access to opportunities and connections.

WBL in Action: Example From San Diego and Imperial Counties, California

WBL implemented at scale calls for a shift from the traditional notion of “education or work” to a more integrated “education and work” model—breaking down long-standing silos between classroom learning and the world of work. This shift requires significant and dynamic relationship building between educators and industry. The San Diego & Imperial Counties Regional Consortium, comprising 10 community colleges, embarked on this transformational work in partnership with WestEd. Over many meetings and communities of practice, the Consortium

  • developed a shared language among all parties
  • tracked progress by counting WBL opportunities that students were given
  • hired liaisons to build relationships with employers
  • hired WBL coordinators to work with faculty and students
  • created an online WBL Professional Development Course for faculty to learn how to integrate WBL into their courses.

One of the Consortium’s greater goals was to make career planning “inescapable” for students. While working with WestEd, leaders in the region recognized that bringing WBL into the classroom is the only effective way to reach all students, and to do that, educators need support. To provide that support, educators throughout the region are invited to participate in the WBL Professional Development Course, which is offered three times a year and administered by WestEd. The WBL course uses an asynchronous cohort-based model on the Canvas platform, where participants review content, engage in discussion forums, and participate in knowledge checks, with the final product being a WBL Lesson Plan in their chosen discipline. Participants exit the course with the lesson plan and a toolbox of downloadable resources they can use with students.

As of Spring 2024, nearly 175 instructors and staff in the region have completed the WBL Professional Development Course. Assuming a course completer leads at least two courses of 30 students in a calendar year, it’s estimated that nearly 10,500 students have been exposed to WBL in just one year! Lesson plans submitted by course completers range from hosting guest speakers in an English as a Second Language course, to completing service learning with local nonprofits for a geography course, to participating in an industry-judged simulated workplace “restaurant war” in a culinary arts course. Instructors who completed the course were enthusiastic—in the end-of-course survey, 100% said they would recommend the course to a colleague, and many realized the benefits of integrating WBL into their instruction.

"I used to think that WBL would take a lot of time, and I struggled to see how I could make it fit into my curriculum. While taking this course, I learned different ways to bring an industry professional into my classroom, and how to tie this experience to research and assignments for my students, which ties in perfectly with the course curriculum.

Watch this video to learn more about the WBL Professional Development Course created for the San Diego & Imperial Counties Regional Consortium.

How You Can Develop WBL Opportunities

WestEd offers expertise in work-based and experiential learning to support learners’ needs in the rapidly changing world. We assist with planning and system development, development of resources and tools, and design and delivery of professional learning, as well as data collection and evaluation processes. We work at the state level, with regional groups, and with colleges and K-12 school districts. The WBL Professional Development Course can be adapted for any region.

Do you want students to engage in real-world experiences and develop the 21st Century Skills employers are increasingly seeking? Are you interested in implementing WBL strategies? Contact the WestEd team at

Phyllis Pistorino serves as a Program Associate at WestEd, where her efforts are instrumental in advancing projects across adult education, postsecondary education, and workforce development. Her educational journey began at community college, an experience that shaped her conviction in their critical role in transforming students’ lives and uplifting communities.

Svetlana Darche is a Senior Research Associate and Director of Career Education at WestEd. She is responsible for co-leading work in career-related education, workforce development, and adult education, including evaluation, policy research, needs assessment, technical assistance, and materials and tool development.

Kerry Sherman Headington is an education consultant working with WestEd and other organizations at the K-12 and college levels. She works on education research, development, and service projects at the local and state levels and is a Certified Linked Learning Coach. Her passion is in guiding educators and students in experiential and work-based learning as a means to college and career success.