Credit: EdSource
Students in linked learning programs get real-life work experience while they learn.

A growing push to give students on-the-job work experience as part of their coursework faces a bedeviling challenge: finding suitable job placements can be complicated and labor-intensive work.

While numerous examples exist of successful campus-to-business partnerships, those who oversee career programs say it’s more often a time-consuming chore to find a critical mass of suitable employers willing and able to host student interns.

Teachers and administrators aren’t trained in job placement, yet spend hours on the phone with would-be employers or plumbing personal connections to find opportunities for students. Employers, too, are unsure what they’ll encounter when bringing on untested high school and community college students, and many don’t have the time or resources to work with young students.

A new online database being developed by the Foundation for California Community Colleges and the nonprofit Linked Learning Alliance aims to solve that challenge by helping match high school and community college students with employers willing to hire them as interns. Linked learning programs combine academics with real-world work experience.

The database, called LaunchPath, is the first of its kind in California. The online program will allow students and teachers to peruse and apply for internships at participating employers. Employers will be able to see if students have the qualifications and skills they’re seeking, making it easier to determine if applicants are the right fit.

Funded by a $1.2 million grant from JPMorgan Chase, LaunchPath is expected to come online in late August and will be piloted at high schools and community colleges in the Sacramento area. Pilot participants include the Sacramento City and Elk Grove unified school districts and the Los Rios, Sierra and Yuba community college districts. About 75 Sacramento-area businesses have signaled interest in LaunchPath, organizers said, with about a dozen officially signing on.

The program comes as the state is putting a stronger focus on preparing students to graduate with the skills they’ll need to succeed in college and careers. The state’s new budget formula for schools requires districts to account for how well they’re preparing students for life after high school as part of their three-year Local Control and Accountability Plans, which outline spending.

Expanded opportunities

Participants are hopeful that LaunchPath will lift a significant barrier to providing career opportunities for students.

“Work placements are something we very much want to be able to offer to every single student,” said Theresa McEwen, the interim director for high school redesign efforts who oversees linked learning programs in the Sacramento City Unified School District. “With the current model or funding structure, it just isn’t really possible to guarantee or even hope that every student would have an internship placement.”

Such placements, which give students hands-on career experience in a field they’ve been studying, are the culminating “capstone experience” of a student’s senior year, McEwen said.

The district is hoping LaunchPath can help it meet an ambitious goal of placing as many as 700 high school students in internships this coming school year – up from about 500 in past years.

“Instead of us having to set them up individually, one-by-one-by-one, which can be extremely time intensive, we’ll have this virtual space that will match students with employers,” McEwen said.

The early pilot is specifically aimed at high-demand fields, particularly health, engineering and renewable energy, but organizers hope to eventually expand the database statewide.

The need is vast and growing, said Alex Taghavian, senior program manager at the Linked Learning Alliance, which advocates for linked learning programs.

About 600,000 students across the state are involved in linked learning or career pathway programs. More than 1,900 students are involved in linked learning programs in the pilot districts in the Sacramento-area alone.

That number is expected to grow as more districts expand linked learning and career pathways programs for their students, Taghavian said.

Expanded services

LaunchPath is designed to go beyond a static job-postings board, however, and offers schools and employers practical benefits to help remove barriers to internships, said Tim Aldinger, work force development program manager for the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

Participating employers will be able to receive human resources assistance through the community college foundation’s Career Pathway Internship Service, which makes it easier for businesses to hire student interns. Under the program, the foundation becomes the employer of record for the student workers, assuming all responsibilities for payroll, workers’ compensation insurance, work permits and other necessities. While the internship service program has historically been geared toward college and university students, the grant from JPMorgan Chase will allow the foundation to expand it to cover high school students, as well.

LaunchPath will also test out a new online “badging” system, where students in the database will be issued virtual badges to signify that they have competencies employers may be looking for. While the details of the badges are still being worked out, badges could be offered for skills, such as website development or training in specialized computer programs, to help employers select workers to best fit their needs.

At the same time, employers will be chosen for their willingness to work with students and provide a quality internship experience that complements the coursework.

“Part of what we’re trying to build is a real alignment with each specific pathway, not just some work-based learning where you go to sort of a random employer and get random work-based experience,” Aldinger said. “The ideal we’re shooting for is perfect alignment with what you’re learning in the classroom.”

Earning while learning

Employers and schools say they are hopeful the pilot will help streamline their programs and make it easier to place students.

“One of the challenges is finding facilities or individuals who will not only take on students, but also understand that it’s part of an educational program – it’s not just going with dad or mom to work,” said Jim Collins, dean of science and allied health at Sacramento City College, which will participate in the pilot. “Getting folks who are willing to put the time into doing that and track all that for (a student’s) education is difficult. So it’s much better to have a central clearing house that enables the employer to have one place to go, and the faculty (looking to place students) to have one place to go, as well.”

Participating employers, many of whom have worked with community college students in the region, are also interested in expanding their intern pool to high school students.

“We really feel like it pays off in the long run,” said Leandra Wilson, director of strategic operations and human resources at Harris & Bruno International, a Roseville-based firm that manufactures parts for printers. “We feel like they’re learning while they’re earning, and we’re getting productivity out of it because we have them work on pieces and parts that we are able to use.”

The company typically hires between 10 and 15 student interns each year, Wilson said, and many turn into full-time employees. Over the past five years, more than 15 interns have been hired, she said.

The placements also give students an introduction to real-world work environments in fields that interest them, building job skills and helping young people see early on whether they’ve chosen the career that’s right for them, advocates said.

Students give internships high marks, as well.

“It was a great experience,” said Joseph Lee, an 18-year-old senior at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, of his internships with the city’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Lee, a student in the school’s business academy, started working with the program as a sophomore, helping low-income families file free tax returns.

The experience taught him the importance of staying on task and following instructions and also provided valuable social and communication skills, he said. It also gave him an insight into careers in business, a field that interested him.

“It definitely helped me,” said Lee, who intends to join the Marine Corps after graduating in June. “I’m looking at maybe being an accountant (eventually), but I’m not sure yet. I’ll see where my path will take me.”

Michelle Maitre covers career and college readiness. Contact her at mmaitre@edsourc.org and follow her on Twitter @michelle_maitre. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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