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How to Manage a Successful Work-Based Learning Program

September 25, 2019

Work-based learning (WBL) has proven to be an effective method for Vocational and Educational Training, particularly for hands-on industries that require solid practical knowledge. But its efficacy as a training method comes at a price: time-consuming organisation, and the right tools. There’s much to consider for each stage of a work-based learning program, with constant refinement required with every student that completes a placement, apprenticeship, internship, or any other form of VET-based WBL.

We’ve outlined some common challenges that a training organisation will need to tackle when offering work-based learning to their students.

Communicate regularly, and record everything

Work-based learning involves a number of different parties, with increased complexity for each new party added. At a minimum, there’s the student and the employer. There can also be the training institution, the regulatory board, a third-party intermediary such as a Group Training Organisation (GTO), and in some cases, the student’s parents. Key parties must communicate regularly for the WBL to be effective, and this can be incredibly challenging. A communication tool that allows crucial information to be delivered between parties at the appropriate times, and which keeps a record of everything sent, can help to keep the WBL program on track.

If a student decides to quit halfway through their program, but doesn’t let the training organisation know, it can be assumed that they’re progressing without any issues. A regular check-in from either the student or the training institution would prevent this problem. Even something simple like asking the students to provide a daily happiness rating (where they “score” the day as sad, mediocre, or happy) can let the training institution know that the student is attending, while providing valuable emotional feedback in relation to the program.

A well-thought out communication plan, and the right tool to accomplish it, can be the difference between a WBL program succeeding or failing.

Make safety a priority

Inexperienced workers make up a large portion of people killed or injured at work[1]—work health and safety (WHS) training is incredibly important for students going on work placement, and must be completed before the placement begins. A duty of care exists for both the training organisation and employer, to prevent the student from causing harm to themselves and others. Some industries have specific licenses or courses that must be completed to guarantee the student’s safety, such as the white card required for construction.

The potential inexperience of the learner should not be underestimated. They may not understand why they need to follow safety instructions, be unable to make common-sense safety judgements, or have any kind of knowledge around hazards. Nothing can be assumed in this process, which is why it can be one of the pricklier aspects of a work-based learning program, to be handled with special care.

In addition to generic health and safety knowledge, the employer will have their own unique health and safety requirements, which must be laid out step-by-step to the training organisation, so that they may train the students in preparation for the placement. 

It benefits the training organisation to discuss workplace safety with the employer before they decide whether to use them as a host for their students, to mitigate potential safety risks. This includes understanding whether a workplace has a documented WHS policy, requires a site inspection, has an induction program, and a process for reporting health and safety incidents.

This document from the Australian Safety and Compensation Council offers in-depth advice on health and safety for student work placements.

Prepare the student for the work-based learning program

For the work placement to be valuable, the student must be able to demonstrate a basic understanding of the soft skills needed for their upcoming role, in addition to fostering personal attributes such as commitment, enthusiasm, and motivation. Flexibility is a desirable quality in the student too, who would do well to remember that they’re working within a functional, profit-based business, where rolling with the punches is essential for survival.

If the training institution isn't equipped to teach these skills, it’s necessary to hire someone who can. Ex-students who have been through a work-based learning program can be a goldmine of information for new students.

In NSW, these qualities are taught and measured in a government-funded program called Go2Workplacement, which is refined from year to year. SafeWork NSW should also visit the students at the training institution and talk to them before they go on site. 

Queensland runs a similar program for community-based organisations with not-for-profit objectives, called Ready for Work. These programs can help training organisations to prepare their students for placements, to make them as beneficial as possible.

Keep an eye on compliance

A certain level of attendance is required for the completion of many VET qualifications, including work placements, apprenticeships and traineeships, which makes reporting a requirement. A tool that allows the employer to easily report the attendance of the student is essential for compliance, and also lets the training institution know whether the student is losing interest in the program, allowing them to intervene.

Assessing competencies is another major challenge of compliance, as each piece of work that the student completes must be directly mapped to a specific competency in their course, and checked off on completion. A tool that maps exercises directly to course competencies can make this process much smoother. By making this information available to the student, they can perceive how their work contributions are related to their course.

As expected, the training organisation should strive to keep up to date with the latest policy changes for work-based learning compliance, so that they can continue to walk the regulatory tightrope.

Build employer relationships

Given that WBL courses are hosted by employers, an RTO must proactively establish and maintain high-quality industry partnerships, an exercise that can be time-consuming. Finding suitable employers is half the battle—they’ll need to be in an industry that is relevant to the training, located within an acceptable distance for the student to travel, and have staff members with the skill currency and teaching ability necessary to train and guide the student. 

The other half is regular communication to keep the relationship strong, but not so much that they become annoyed. A felicitous balance must be struck between keeping the employers happy, and meeting all of the requirements needed for a successful work-based learning program. In the event that an employer is lost, reaching out for more information can help to prevent it from happening in the future.

If they're willing, the employer might help the training organisation to design a rigorous and relevant course, as they’re likely to have a greater understanding of the latest skills needed for the industry. In this regard, the employer serves as an academic mentor to the training organisation, while also helping with the trainer’s professional development.

Training organisations should also routinely reassess whether a company is still the right choice for their WBL courses, to keep up a high standard of education.

Consider how to tackle mobile phones

Those magical little devices that we keep in our pockets can be incredibly addictive, particularly for younger students whose lives are entwined with social media. When faced with something challenging on a work placement, the student might have a burning desire to escape the situation, and the most convenient way to do this is with their phones—an entire world of distracting, soothing entertainment at their fingertips. 

Employers and training organisations must figure out the most effective ways to keep this in check, while not stifling the student’s freedoms, or treating them like children.

Pay attention to legal concerns

A work contract between the student and employer must be in place before the work-based learning begins, with signed copies obtained from each party. Intellectual property rights are also a factor to be considered—who owns the work that the student completes? These concerns should be covered in the contract between the student and employer.

Sell the benefits of work-based learning programs

Often, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) simply don’t have the time or resources for a work-based learning program—a demand that must be met for it to prove favourable. Larger companies tend to fare a little better for this reason, and their investment is returned with keen-eyed, loyal, and motivated young people working for their business. 

The reluctance of employers to take on students for work-based learning can be tackled by reminding them of their fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and eventual affordability after they graduate from the work placement. Providing WBL for students can be costly, but with the potential for high returns.

Set students’ expectations

For the student to see the process as valuable, they must have clear expectations surrounding the placement—what am I getting out of this? How does career based education benefit me? What kind of training and mentoring will I receive while on site? How many hours am I expected to work? It’s critical to predict and answer any potential questions that the student might have, keeping surprises to a minimum.

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The benefits of work-based learning are extensive—it’s a powerful educational tool and learning style that has proven to be effective, but with tough challenges that must be tackled for it to be successful. With hard work and diligence, work-based learning can provide valuable educational experiences for your students.

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Special thanks to Julie Agnew and Kylie Ham at Newman Senior Technical College, for their contributions to the article.

References

1. SafeWork Australia, “Student Work Placement, a Health and Safety Guide For Educators and Employers