How work-based learning connects students with mentors and experience

By Andre M. Perry

“I started to work side jobs in college to earn extra money; now all I have are side hustles,” said 31-year-old ride-hailing driver Andrea as she whisked me to the Chicago O’Hare airport. Andrea, who earned her college degree in English literature in 2012, is a temp in a law firm and drives people around on weekday mornings and throughout the weekend. Before that, she worked as a packer in various warehouses in the Midwest. Andrea estimated she has worked at least 10 to 12 jobs since graduating from college six years ago. “I’m still planning on being an attorney,” she said, though I’m not sure if she was trying to convince me, or herself. “It’s just taking me a little longer than I expected.” 

Andrea’s circuitous path to becoming a lawyer doesn’t come from a lack of drive. She lacked mentors in high school and college. A mentor might have advised her on which jobs to take and recommended her for positions that could have forged a more direct path to law school and eventually, a career as a lawyer. Working in the gig economy as a contractor with a ride-hailing company precludes the kinds of deep relationships that lead to professional advancement.

The nonprofit organization Mentor, which works to ensure that everyone “has the supportive relationships they need to grow and develop,” conducted a national survey in 2014 of youth aged 18 to 21 and found that one in three reported growing up without a mentor of any kind. The group defines a mentor as a “supportive adult who works with a young person to build a relationship by offering guidance, support, and encouragement to help the young person’s positive and healthy development over a period of time.” A mentor can be introduced formally through programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, or informally through a family member or via participation in a sports or arts program.

According to a 2006 report by the American Psychological Association, “mentored individuals often earn higher performance evaluations, higher salaries, and faster career progress than non-mentored individuals.” Notably, a 2015 analysis of Harvard law school graduates found that women who had not become partners in a firm had fewer mentors during their first five years than either women partners or men who had not achieved partnership status.

The #MeToo movement, which has put a spotlight on sexual harassment, has painfully revealed how vital it is for women and girls to obtain quality mentoring and safe spaces to share their experiences and receive advice. But, the number of men who are uncomfortable mentoring women has tripled with the rise of the movement, according to findings from an online poll from February by the nonprofit LeanIn.Org. Blacks, Muslims, and other underrepresented groups are in the same precarious position.

Being a woman, Latinx, black, an immigrant, or a religious minority shouldn’t preclude people from receiving the professional mentoring everyone needs.

Too many young people are left in the lurch, wandering aimlessly in a professional wilderness. And no one succeeds on their own. The myth of individual exceptionalism—that truly motivated people can pull themselves up by their boot straps—obscures how people really get ahead: with the assistance of others.

The role of schools and businesses in preparing students

Schools and businesses can meet halfway to close the mentorship gap. Some companies already encourage their employees to mentor young people through formal or informal programs. Jocelyn Kelly, vice president at Citizens Bank in Providence, R.I., mentors two high school students through a company program. On a panel that I moderated recently, one of those students, high school senior Paige Cook, credited the internship for helping her decide what she wanted to do in college. But not enough companies provide these opportunities. More businesses must open their doors to students through internships, summer employment opportunities, research intensives, and other experiential learning options.

Likewise, schools must adopt more work-based learning programs. Work-based learning is an instructional approach to classroom teaching that makes connections to the workplace. It entails teaching academic, technical, and social skills in real work settings or simulated situations. Think learning art and history by shadowing a curator in the summer months or learning the physics of sound through an internship with a sound engineer. These mentor-teachers can not only learn the strengths of the students they are working with, but they can also inform them of job opportunities and recommend them for future positions.

Real world examples of effective mentorships

A Rhode Island inter-agency task force that includes the governor’s office launched PrepareRI in 2017 “to create a K-12 education system that is aligned with the demands of colleges and employers.” The state is creating new ways students can receive high school and college credits: through internships as well as through traditional career and technical programs. PrepareRI has asked banks, construction firms, software engineering companies, and other types of businesses to develop internships for high school and college students. The leadership team of this program is also working to match employers with college students who are eligible for financial aid. The state government of Rhode Island practices what it preaches: A Brown University senior is currently interning in the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner program for people who are considering a future in postsecondary policymaking.

A quality internship can separate students from the pack in an employer-driven market.

Students who complete internships through PrepareRI get high school and college credits, work experience (hopefully paid, though payment is not required) and most importantly, they develop relationships that can put them on a path to a solid career. Employers get assistance on tasks of varying levels of skill, but more importantly, businesses help prepare all future employees for the workforce.

Without family or professional ties to a particular field, it’s hard to gain access to a quality job in a competitive market. In Providence, about 13 percent of people with less than a college degree qualify for good jobs, defined as jobs that earn $42,300 (the median for such earners), according to forthcoming research by my colleagues at the Brookings Institution, Richard Shearer and Isha Shah. Roughly 11 percent of these earners will qualify for a promising job—one that will lead to a job that will pay $42,000 in 10 years. Approximately 22 percent of the Providence metro area jobs are considered good or promising for workers with a baccalaureate-level degree.

Clearly, a college degree is paramount. However, a quality internship can separate students from the pack in an employer-driven market. This is especially true for low-income students and underrepresented populations who are less likely to have a connection with someone in a managerial position. Schools can help level this playing field by placing all students in established internship programs with employers. This is why initiatives like PrepareRI are so important.

As a former school administrator in post-Katrina New Orleans, members of the business community repeatedly told me, “If we can only fix the schools,” bemoaning the dearth of work-ready students right before they made an excuse to not hire raw talent. Primary and secondary schools have prioritized college preparation since the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, when states demanded K-12 schools adhere to rigid academic standards. Making it worse, employers who previously viewed new employees as apprentices to be trained have now openly absolved themselves of responsibility to help train young people.

The metaphor of the career ladder doesn’t represent the circuitous path and the multiple stops that my ride-hailing driver, former warehouse worker, and current office temp has made on her path to become an attorney. Andrea, who identifies as Latina, has amassed several skills along the way, but her journey shows that jobs aren’t synonymous with a solid career. After Andrea told me that she didn’t have a mentor, she said, “I guess by now you’d think I’d know that I need a mentor, but you don’t know what you don’t know.”

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