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Preparing students for the careers of tomorrow: New documentary spotlights work-based learning

Midwest | May 21, 2024

Two persons wearing safety goggles and standing next to each other

Today's high school students must chart a career path amid an environment of rapid change, as advances such as artificial intelligence reshape industries and workplaces. One way that educators can prepare students for the careers of tomorrow is through work-based learning. An integral part of high-quality career and technical education (CTE),1 work-based learning enables students to explore in-demand careers in real-world settings while building skills to navigate a changing economy.

A new REL Midwest documentary, produced with Ball State PBS in Muncie, Indiana, illustrates the benefits of work-based learning for both students and employers. Through the stories of learners, educators, and leaders, the documentary spotlights three models of work-based learning in Indiana districts plus innovative practices the districts are using to strengthen their programs.

  • Internship: Perry Central Community Schools, a small rural district in southern Indiana, engages some 80 percent of its high school seniors in internships. The documentary spotlights the district's engineering internship with Thermwood Corporation, which designs and produces machinery such as computer numerical control routers and large-scale additive machines.
  • Apprenticeship: The three-year Modern Apprenticeship program, offered through EmployIndy, begins in a student's junior year of high school. Apprentices gain paid, hands-on experience while earning college credits and credentials. The documentary spotlights a high school student at Indianapolis Public Schools who is completing an apprenticeship in accounting.
  • School-Based Enterprise: The Collaboration of Shoals, Mitchell, and Orleans Schools (COSMOS)—which brings together three small rural districts in southern Indiana—shares work-based learning offerings across the districts to expand student opportunities. The documentary spotlights Bulldog Manufacturing and Design, housed at Orleans Junior-Senior High School. This student-run business designs and manufactures products for multiple companies as a subcontractor. Students earn dual college credits and industry-recognized credentials.

Considerations for strengthening work-based learning

Educators in the documentary share a number of practices their districts are using to strengthen work-based learning, including strategies for increasing student participation and expanding offerings aligned to industry needs. District and school leaders may want to consider these practices for their contexts.

    "If I never interned, I would have never gotten the work experience that I have now, and I don't think I would have been as prepared coming out of high school and into college."

    Lenea, Engineering Intern, Perry Central Junior-Senior High School

  • Offer a range of options. In addition to off-site internships and apprenticeships, provide a variety of ways for students to participate in work-based learning. For example, some schools offer remote internships and school-based options that do not require transportation.
  • Connect students with resources. Help students access supports to connect with employers, such as through intermediary agencies, like EmployIndy, or state sites, such as Work and Learn Indiana.
  • Invite employers in. Employers may be willing to partner but may not know how. Reach out and ask employers to visit the school, meet the CTE students and teachers, and learn about the opportunities available.  
  • Go out in the community. Get involved with community events to network with business and industry leaders and explore potential areas for partnerships. For example, attend events at the local chamber of commerce.
  • Consider employers' needs. When reaching out to employers, consider their needs and how partnering with the school can help them meet those needs. Help businesses realize that work-based learning can be a win-win proposition, benefitting both employers and students.
  • "When you work with an employer partner, coming to the table with your biggest idea is often their smallest idea. They're like, 'Ah, I just didn't know how to engage with you.' . . . We now come to the table with either what we're doing with one of our other partners so they can see a model or with, again, our biggest idea, and oftentimes our industry partners run with that."

    Apryl Kidd, Director, COSMOS

  • Think big. Share your ideas with employers, including your big ideas. What a school or district may see as a big request, an employer may consider small.
  • Seek out models. Look for the types of work-based learning programs you want to develop and reach out to them for advice. The Modern Apprenticeship program at EmployIndy is modeled on a successful Swiss program that met with Indiana staff and provided guidance.
  • Adjust the schedule. Consider a variety of scheduling options. Perry Central Junior-Senior High School modified its school schedule so that all seniors could participate in an internship one full day a week. This approach reduced scheduling conflicts and transportation needs and enabled interns to accomplish more involved tasks than if they worked one or two hours at a time.

A growing evidence base for CTE and work-based learning

"There's considerable research now that participating in CTE programs improves students' likelihood of high school graduation, their transition to community and technical colleges, and also their later employment and earnings."

Katherine Hughes, Ph.D., Principal Researcher, AIR

To ground these practices in the research, the documentary also features Katherine Hughes, Ph.D., a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Dr. Hughes summarizes the broader evidence base on CTE, noting that a growing body of research shows many positive impacts for CTE on high school students' academic achievement, college readiness, and later employment and earnings.2 For example, participating in CTE improves students' likelihood of graduating from high school and making the transition to community and technical colleges.

Research on work-based learning is limited, however, because of challenges in collecting systematic data for these wide-ranging experiences.3 As states, districts, and schools work to strengthen their work-based learning programs, they also may want to consider ways to strengthen their data collection to support future research.

Connect and learn more

REL Midwest is partnering with education leaders to strengthen high-quality career pathways and programs, with a focus on increasing student participation in work-based learning at the secondary level. Interested in connecting to learn more and get involved with this work? Reach out to Kelly Reese at

Browse the following resources to learn more about our work in the region:

REL Midwest resources:

Indiana resources:


1 Imperatore, C., & Hyslop, A. (2018). 2018 ACTE Quality CTE Program of Study Framework. Association for Career and Technical Education.

2 Lindsay, J., Hughes, K., Dougherty, S. M., Reese, K., & Joshi, M. (2024). What we know about the impact of career and technical education: A systematic review of the research. American Institutes for Research, Career and Technical Education Research Network.

3 Shields, K. A., Hutchins, B. C., Reese, K., Fletcher, E. C., & Hughes, K. (2024). Building robust district work-based learning data collection systems. American Institutes for Research, Career and Technical Education Research Network. The Career and Technical Education Research Network, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is currently conducting a systematic review of the evidence on work-based learning at the secondary level. Check the network's website for updates.


Joni Wackwitz

Joni Wackwitz

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