Work-Based Learning Aids Students and Employers

WARREN, Ohio – As employers struggle to find enough people to fill job openings, collaborative programs between businesses and educational institutions help to strengthen the talent pipeline.

One such program is the work-based learning program at Trumbull Career and Technical Center.

In the three years that VEC Inc. in Girard has engaged students through the program, the electrical contractor has hired a few graduates to its estimating and design departments and directed a few others to the electrician apprenticeship program at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 573 in Warren.

VEC trains students in safety and some in-house work, such as fabrication and basic electrical skills, says Dave Jakovina, service department manager and manpower superintendent. Students also learn soft skills, such as filling out reports and keeping track of their time.

“Everything that they need as their base to develop skills as a tradesman,” Jakovina says. “We try to give them a well-rounded training program.”

Work-based learning gives students experience in their trade while they’re still in school, says Nathan Berry, TCTC career development coordinator. Given the shortage of available workers, area employers are enthusiastic about participating “to work with the students to help them learn and grow and become the employee that they would want,” Berry says.

“I’m receiving calls and emails and also making calls to businesses almost every day,” he says. “There are a lot of companies that get in touch with us that are looking for help.”

Berry recently took the position at TCTC. He brings education and trade experience, which helps him to understand where the instructors and the employers are coming from, he says.

“It helps me to be able to see both sides of the fence and help them out,” he says. “Working with the students, of course. But a lot of my job is to help the instructors manage the work-based learning for the students.”

TCTC students have always had the opportunity to work during the second half of their senior year, says Rachel Gensburg, program and guidance supervisor. What’s changed in the last couple of years has been the formalization of the program from the Ohio Department of Education.

The department started voluntary collection of data about work-based learning in 2019. As of last school year, 132 schools had work-based learning programs, it reports.

Part of the reason for the formalization is to track the success of career centers and determine their eligibility for federal funding. In July 2018, former President Donald Trump signed into law a bipartisan measure to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, providing nearly $1.3 billion annually for national career and technical education programs.

The law requires that programs be designed cooperatively by educators and industry representatives, including what skills and competencies the students should learn, Gensburg says. Students must also track their hours. In turn, the partner businesses must evaluate the students’ performance.

“So what it is trying to do is give students an opportunity to work in a field and get a business person to give them feedback on how they’re doing from that aspect,” Gensburg says. “If we can do this in high school and we can receive that feedback and we can build those business relationships for kids, we’re strengthening the workforce later.”

To participate, businesses must hire the student as they would any other employee. Internships and volunteer opportunities that meet appropriate guidelines also work. All employers must follow applicable minor labor laws.

Employers must also fill out paperwork that affirms the student is doing work related to what he’s learning at TCTC. They must evaluate the students on their work, as well as getting to work on time, showing initiative, following instructions and working safely.

“Our goal is for them to become a successful employee,” Gensburg says.

The program allows employers to build relationships with the students so, after a few years training them, they can help to instill the work ethic they want to see. Typically, this leads to students gaining full-time employment.

“More often than not the students that get into positions with employers through work-based learning end up staying with the company. Or the company will help to finance further education,” Berry says. “[The students] may work there for a while as they’re going to school. Or they may just stay on and work as a career.”

The pandemic put a halt to the program in 2020. But before that, TCTC had about 20 students working in early placement positions. This year, the school is on track to exceed that number.

TCTC has also increased the number of pre-apprenticeship programs available for students, including opportunities with IBEW, VEC and the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition.

Businesses interested in participating in TCTC’s work-based learning program can contact Berry at the school. TCTC is looking for true partners who will work within the guidelines of the program, he says.

“We’re not a placement service. We’re not just trying to fill holes in their company. But it has to be a relationship where the students can grow,” Berry says. “They’re still students. They’re still learning and they need that support.”

Businesses like VEC recognize the value in helping students get up to speed before they graduate. With a shortage of skilled tradesmen entering the workforce, work-based learning will “fast track” students to a career in the building trades after graduation, Jakovina says.

“Most public schools, with their guidance systems, don’t even bring up options like this in the industry,” he says. “It’s missed along the way. TCTC really jumped on this and they’re finding places for their students when they graduate.”

Along with being a participant, VEC is an active proponent of the program, Jakovina says. He’s reached out to other electrical contractors and businesses in general to get them involved with the TCTC program.

“They definitely are setting an example in this area. And there is a definite demand,” he says.

Area employers work with students in the construction, electrical, welding and health science programs, among others, Gensburg notes.

“Our seniors actually complete their [State Tested Nursing Assistant] test in December,” she says. “A lot of them then start working at our assisted living facilities as an STNA.”

Other organizations can participate in the program with simulated work environments. Students in information technology programs have built websites and mobile applications for nonprofits or promotional materials, she says.

TCTC is working to create opportunities for students in careers that traditionally go on to a four-year degree program before they enter the workforce, Gensburg says.

“Those can be a challenge because those are not jobs students are going to get right out of high school Maybe a minimum requirement is a four-year degree or a certain certification,” she says.

In those cases, TCTC is looking for simulated work environments where a company presents a project to complete or a problem to solve. Employers can come in and meet with the students to explain the project, then “let our students try to work on some solutions for you,” Gensburg says. Employers would then provide their responses.

Pictured: Rachel Gensburg and Nathan Berry lead the work-based learning program at TCTC, which engages local employers.