Work-based learning is the hallmark of Jobs to Careers. Frontline employees master occupational and academic skills in the course of their job tasks and day-to-day responsibilities.
Work-based learning is a cornerstone of Jobs to Careers. It is an approach to adult education and training that emphasizes the employee as learner, and the work process itself as a source of learning. It involves methods of education and training that capture, document, formalize, and reward learning that occurs on the job.
The concept of learning in the workplace is not new; all workers receive informal, on-the-job training. And health care has a tradition of formal, experience-based learning, through internships, clinical rounds, and residencies that link workers and employers to educational institutions. However, such opportunities are rarely available to the frontline workers who have the greatest amount of contact with patients and the public—nurse aides, medical assistants, community health educators, mental health technicians. Instead, these frontline workers learn by trial and error, from quick instruction by peers and from occasional “in service” sessions on required topics such as safety. U.S. employers generally invest relatively little in training and educating less-skilled workers compared to their professional development investments in upper-level staff. The consequences of this imbalance can be grave in health care, where the quality of care may be compromised by insufficiently trained workers.
In Jobs to Careers, the promise of work-based learning is to improve employee performance and, ultimately, the quality of care by enhancing the ability of frontline workers to apply the content knowledge inherent in tending to patient and client needs. Better-skilled, better-educated caregivers commit fewer errors and understand why they carry out certain tasks, not just how to do them. When tied to career advancement and educational opportunities, work-based learning has the potential to turn dead-end jobs into career opportunities, thereby improving morale and commitment and reducing turnover and disruptions in caregiving.
In the work-based learning model, educational institutions and employers work in partnership to determine competencies for a particular occupation, and then they structure ways to teach the competencies in a work setting. Once students demonstrate mastery of the competencies, they receive academic credit and/or industry-recognized credentials. While work-based learning shares features with other forms of workplace learning (e.g., internships and residencies), it is unique in that it is embedded in the worker’s job. The job, in turn, is geared to achieve learning objectives rooted in its skill requirements.
Work-based learning also transforms the traditional role of college faculty members, who become learning guides or facilitators as much as teachers. And teaching, once the exclusive province of faculty, becomes a shared responsibility with supervisors and others at the work site. They help employers understand the competencies required for college credit, the requirements for accreditation, and a variety of regulations. Based on this information, worksite supervisors, together with college faculty, identify work-related tasks that have learning potential. Together, they determine how the learning occurs and what supportive materials employees need in addition to these experiences. In addition to the faculty, worksite supervisors, peer mentors, preceptors, or other staff are responsible for delivering some of the curriculum.
Work-based learning is particularly effective for frontline workers who may be less successful with traditional classroom modes of learning, due to low levels of formal education, limited English proficiency, negative experiences with school, or long gaps in direct educational experiences. In addition, paying college tuition or attending college classes outside of work hours can present significant challenges.
Four Steps to Work-Based Learning
These four process dimensions of work-based learning embody a substantially different approach to educating and training adult learners.
Step 1: Identify competencies the employees must learn.
What does it take to do a job? The question is not trivial; especially when the health, safety, and recovery of health care consumers ride on the answer. Expecting workers on the frontlines of health care to perform their jobs well presumes that there are clear standards for the skills, knowledge, and abilities required to deliver care. But often this is not the case in fields such as behavioral health, which lack standardized definitions of competency and performance for entry-level jobs. As a consequence, the orientation and training of workers are haphazard, what training exists is not well grounded in work requirements, and employers lack objective standards for assessing performance and advancing workers on a career path.
Competencies play a pivotal role in work-based learning initiatives. Specifying the tasks and skills necessary to perform a job makes it possible to:
Identifying competencies is a joint effort by the employer and the educational institution. Work-related competencies have to be aligned with those required for a course or an academic program.
Step 2: Select a work-related activity with learning potential.
This depends on the type of work employees are doing, as well as the needs of their supervisors. For example, a community health center might identify that frontline workers require competency in written communications, problem identification and the development of solutions, program/project planning, critical thinking, and evaluation. A work-related activity that would offer an opportunity to learn these competencies might be developing an employee/family wellness program for the community.
Step 3: Determine mechanisms to promote reflection and skill acquisition.
Skills are gained by practicing them, particularly under supervision and with guidance from a mentor or preceptor at the work site. In effect, practicing the skill is the “homework.” For example, a student can learn how to use Microsoft Excel through an online module covering the basics of this essential spreadsheet program. Then the supervisor can assign related work tasks, such as using Excel to create a table of figures, format it, and perform simple calculations. By working with the online module, students learn how to do the task; by having their work checked by their supervisor, they demonstrate their ability to apply that knowledge.
Reflection can occur in a similarly planned manner. Several Jobs to Careers sites use “learning cohorts” or learning circles: workers experience work-based learning in a group environment, convening on a regular basis to reflect on what they are learning. Other strategies that promote reflection include journal writing, learning portfolios, peer mentoring, and project teams. In journal writing, for instance, participants might reflect critically on how they performed a particular task (e.g., with a patient or client), what they have learned, and how to apply it to current or anticipated practices.
Step 4: Create an assessment strategy.
The worksite supervisor or manager assesses whether a student has mastered each competency, then reports back to the educational institution. Assessment varies according to each frontline worker’s job, as well as the requirements of the educational institution and its accrediting body. For example, evaluating the competencies of nursing assistants is a markedly different process than assessing the progress of health care informatics staff, who use and manage biomedical data as the core of their job. With nursing assistants, an appropriately credentialed supervisor accompanies them as they demonstrate what they have learned, such as taking vital signs or transferring patients. Health care informatics jobs rely heavily on information technology and computer work, so supervisors evaluate printed materials or reports that exhibit the necessary competencies.