High School Work Experience Needs Work

I recently discussed work experience programs with a school guidance counsellor, and I must admit it was discouraging. Listening to this person tell me about sending kids out to make cold calls, serve coffee, or move boxes around a warehouse in order to receive high school credits really highlighted, for me, the complicity of schools in making sure the marginalized kids stay marginalized via early grooming for low-skills work.

When I went to high school (some time ago now), doing work experience was as stigmatized as W.P Wagner High School in Edmonton. It’s now a science-focused magnet school, but in my day it was where all the “dumb kids” went to do vocational programs. Nothing appears to have changed: The non-academic routes are still the dregs and leftovers in the high school pecking order. And work experience still sucks: Instead of giving kids opportunities to be challenged and learn useful skills in workplace environments, educators and employers alike are inclined to regard these placements as a convenient win/win for schools and employers that ultimately leaves students’ best interests out of the equation. Employers get some cheap labour out the deal; schools get to keep their grad rates up for at risk students – whether the kids learn anything of value or not.

This is a harsh analysis, I realize. One could counter that students, too, are often just fine with this arrangement. Not everyone is cut out, ready, or interested for some form of post-secondary education coming out of high school, and work experience credits accommodate this reality. A kid with a diploma is still further ahead than a kid without a diploma. So I need to stress that it is not work experience itself I take issue with so much as the way it seems to be implemented. Let me explain.

Alberta Education’s curriculum guide for Work Experience 15-25-35 states that the program is intended to help students “discover their career interests and aptitudes in meaningful work activities, situated in community-based work stations and work sites in business, industry, government and community service”[1]. So the purpose of work experience is for students to learn some basic, generic employment skills, but it’s also intended to help students work toward a satisfying and suitable career path. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be much of a focus. A recent review of youth career planning [2] gives our existing practices a good spanking, identifying a number of problems that interfere with good planning for high school youth. Among these:

  • Guidance counselling is often under-resourced, and counsellors aren’t trained much for career planning beyond simply presenting information to kids. School counselling tends to focus on personal and crisis counselling, which is terribly important, but leaves little time for career counselling
  • The kids most likely to need career advice are also those least likely to seek it out. The “if you build it they will come” approach to career counselling is thus ineffective
  • Work experience is not structured as a learning experience. Schools tend to be “hands off” here, and workplace mentors more often than not lack the time and training to structure good learning experiences for the students. Further, if they view the student simply as an extra pair of hands, they are unlikely to go the extra mile to ensure the work experience student’s experience is as per the curriculum guidelines for work experience, “meaningful” [3].
  • I’d add that teachers are university educated. This contributes, I expect, to the cultural biases, so prevalent in schools, against trades and non-higher education routes. This marginalizes many students for whom these are the best options.

The sum of this is that work experience programs, and high school career counseling practices in general, have a long ways to go in terms of helping kids manage the crucial journey out of high school and into something kind of a like a real world. Some students get great support from their families, and this can compensate for haphazard school policies and practices. But lots of our youth don’t have that support, and too often they are let down by their schools as well. I just think we can do better here.

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[1] Alberta Education’s curriculum guidelines for Work Experience 15-25-35 (1995).

[2] Bell, D. & Bezanson, L. (2006). Career Development Services for Canadian Youth: Access Adequacy and Accountability. Pathways to the Labour Market Series, 1. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Policy Research Network. Also, assuming you have all sorts of free time, see Grubb, N. and Lazerson, M. (2004) The Education Gospel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Thanks to Dr. Alison Taylor for supporting notes on this book.

[3] For an analysis of the contribution of weak linkages between schools and work that disfavour work-bound youth, see Rosenbaum, J. (2001). Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half.

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