Building Intermediaries to Support Work-Based Learning Experiences

Across the work-based learning spectrum, intermediary organizations provide needed capacity and services to connect employers and educators. They also manage and scale work-based learning programs to make more options accessible to more youth.

In early 2020, with the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, ESG launched the Work-Based Learning Intermediary Institute, which brought together cross-sector teams from five communities across the country to build capacity of intermediary organizations to strengthen and expand work-based learning opportunities. Teams from Detroit, Michigan, Cincinnati, Ohio, Nashville, Tennessee, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Salem, Oregon convened cross-sector teams to begin mapping and developing intermediary capacity that will eventually scale work-based learning opportunities for students. A team from Columbus, Ohio also received coaching to help with the design and launch of intermediary services.

As ESG was preparing to formally kick off the Institute with an in-person convening, the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold across the United States, sparking drastic changes in approaches to and availability of work-based learning. Critical new questions emerged: In the wake of the pandemic, how do we keep employers at the table to provide high-quality work-based learning experiences for high school students? And how do we help communities connect students to those experiences at scale?

As the impact of the pandemic deepened, ESG pivoted and replanned the Institute to be delivered virtually. Rather than convening teams in person, ESG:

– Designed a series of virtual workshops using breakout rooms and virtual whiteboarding to maximize engagement

– Framed sessions with an eye toward post-COVID economic recovery

– Redirected grant funds that would have supported an in-person convening and instead used them to provide each site with an expert coach with deep work-based learning policy and design experience

The Institute included four group-based workshops for participating teams. The first workshop grounded participants in intermediary service lines through role-alike context setting and relationship building. The second helped participants develop a deep understanding of the functions of high-quality work-based learning intermediaries and provided a space for teams to begin exploring the range of services their intermediary might consider offering. The third workshop prepared participants for designing the role of intermediaries in economic recovery. This session allowed participants to access leaders from established intermediaries to understand priorities within their work and discuss and understand the impact COVID-19 has had on their intermediaries’ operations. Finally, the fourth workshop focused on unpacking key characteristics of high-quality work-based learning in new and innovative – and largely virtual – formats to help participating teams understand how those formats might impact quality and rigor.

Following the workshops, ESG developed reference and resource material on the key functions that intermediaries provide. We built a self-assessment tool aligned with intermediary service lines and helped participating communities use the tool to identify and understand their starting points in the work and think through the capacities that are most critical to build within their communities. Coaches with deep expertise in work-based learning then worked strategically with participating teams to identify key focus areas for their work and develop priority action steps they plan to take to scale work-based learning. The self-assessment tool, in addition to site-based coaching, provided support for teams to begin designing experiences for a COVID-19 world.

An additional key area of focus in the intermediary institute was equitable access to high-quality work-based learning, as well as considering work-based learning as a lever for advancing equity, particularly through the lens of social capital development. Between 70 and 90 percent of job seekers find their eventual position through their personal and professional networks, leaving students who lack those networks at a disadvantage in the labor market. Ensuring learners of color and those with low socioeconomic status can begin building those professional networks early is a key mechanism through which work-based learning can contribute to equitable student outcomes.

Sites emerged from the Institute with plans and cross-sector commitments and support to develop intermediary capacity to scale work-based learning within their communities. Those plans were developed with a keen eye toward the future of work-based learning, including building quality virtual internships. 

Through the WBL Institute, we heard time and again that employers are unlikely to return to the levels of demand for work-based learning for some time. Yet, employers understand the need to develop their future talent pipeline and diversify their workforce and are interested in providing virtual opportunities for groups or individual learners as a first step in this direction. Communities need strategies to ensure those virtual, school-based, or simulated work-based learning experiences are still rigorous and embed technical and professional skill development, while simultaneously working toward getting back to in-person, on-site work-based learning. Future work should focus on deepening the quality of these experiences, while also scaffolding back to on-site work-based learning experiences. It should also support communities in leveraging these experiences as an early strategy to helping diverse learners find their way to an in-demand, family-sustaining wage career opportunity.