A recent publication from NCVER released in mid-November 2020 takes a look at this issue, because work-based learning is a key component of vocational education.

It found that work-based education can lead to better employment outcomes for students and provide employers with workers who have relevant skill sets. However, costs to employers are often a barrier. Communication and coordination between employers, providers and students are key to its quality.

Work-based learning has many advantages

Authored by Kristen Osborne, Maree Ackehurst, Leesha Chan and Rose-Anne Polvere the report points to work-based learning’s many benefits. For students, these include “smoother transitions into ongoing employment and the development of broad occupational [and general employability] skills. Employers benefit from productivity gains through ‘work-ready’ recruits, having current employees upskilled in the workplace, and the more effective transfer of skills learned in the classroom to work tasks.”

The benefits can be particularly strong for young people as work-based learning enables them to build a work history, learn from others, and gain an occupational identity. In particular, “work-based education experiences can also improve job and life prospects for youth at risk.”

Training providers benefit too, through improved relationships with employers and an enhanced reputation as a training partner, better student motivation and more informed teaching practices and, finally, providing a range of continuing professional development opportunities for staff.

Apprenticeships are, of course, the quintessential work-based learning program – and so VET has a long history in this approach. Training packages also put a focus on work-based learning, placements and experiences. But simulated work must also be considered as part of a possible work-based experience, especially when such learning may involve dangers to students themselves, or to others.

There are challenges, though

For students, challenges include securing a work placement in the first place and then finding bullying and discrimination and other poor practices in workplaces when the do get one. It can also cost them time and money to gain work experience and approaches and practices in the workplace may contradict what students have learned in the off-job component, potentially requiring them to reconcile the learning messages the sites of learning have given them.

For providers there can be the challenge of organising and monitoring placements, “dealing with occupational health and safety (OHS) requirements and restrictions” and “integrating placements into course schedules.”

Employer challenges include require a business to commit resources and incur costs, such as lost time, productivity and additional administration. They also need to organise programs in their workplace:

“that are relevant, practical and valuable to a student’s coursework, and incorporating them into the business, requires commitment and time.”

What does best practice in work-based learning look like?

The paper outlines some key elements of best practice for providers and employers that, for providers, include carefully matching students with employers and providing them with sufficient support and guidance. For employers, they need to invest in training workplace mentors, create environments conducive to learning and provide students with appropriately challenging work, not just ‘busy work’.

There are implications for policy makers too.