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The Transition from School-to-Work with Online Learning

Many online students are enrolled in programs that lead to specific careers. In a 2010 survey of online learners, Noel-Levitz found that "future employment opportunities were an important factor in their enrollment." These students are interested in changing careers, advancing in their current careers, and embarking on their initial career paths via online programs that are focused on both academic and job-related goals. 

School-to-work initiatives are not new, but can be helpful resources as students prepare for graduation and the world of work. Online learning is also becoming a popular source of preparation as enrollment increases amid concerns of a weakened economy and uncertain job market. One of the primary goals of these initiatives is to "in some manner [integrate] demanding academic study with up-to-date vocational instruction and work-readiness preparation. 

School-to-Work and School-to-Career programs can include on-the-job training, apprenticeships, and other opportunities for students to engage in activities in the workplace with professionals in their field. Employers value previous applied experience in addition to related coursework. This kind of preparation can take place at all levels of education and is particularly popular in high school, vocational/career programs, and higher education.

Programs and Initiatives

There are several school-to-work transition initiatives in higher education led by government agencies, while others are sponsored by private organizations and individual employers. I've described several below, but also encourage you to check with your online school and agencies in your local area to find out more.

  • Education Outreach Programs: The U.S. Department of Energy, through its Savannah River Site, has set up a formal program that includes both "classroom academics with supervised work experience…. for career-oriented high school and technical college students." These programs are focused on giving students hands-on experience with science, technology, engineering, and math careers, as well as encouraging mentorships.
  • American Graduation Initiative: In 2009 President Obama announced an educational goal for 2020 – moving the U.S. from 10th to 1st in the world, with the highest percentage of 24-34 year olds with college degrees. Progress toward this goal is slow as reported by The Hechinger Report, as students deal with rising tuition costs by working while also enrolled in school. This can result in taking fewer courses and extending the time required to complete their academic programs. Enrollment in higher education is increasing, but degree completion is delayed. The Brookings Institute published an article last year with additional information and about funding challenges for this large community college initiative.
  • Lumina Foundation: This organization's Goal 2025 project seeks to "increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60% by 2025". They are doing this with a new assessment of quality in higher education that includes a goal that "all students who come to college graduate with meaningful, high-quality degrees and credentials that enable them to contribute to the workforce."
  • Workforce Initiatives: State employment offices and workforce commissions are involved in projects to identify the specific skills, education, and qualifications desired by employers hiring a wide range of employees. The Workforce Opportunity Project in Kentucky is another example of a collaboration of researchers, counselors, and employers that hopes to inform those developing academic programs in schools and colleges. 

School Counseling and Career Connections

Career planning is not just for college students! School counselors working in all levels of education are using school-to-work curricula to "infuse relevant and realistic experiences into classroom curriculum." The School-to-Career program at the Wake County (NC) Public School System is an example. Mifflin County (PA) has also provided information about the district's career curriculum that links back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional and career associations, and other career descriptions and resources. These programs involve the collaboration of counselors, curriculum developers, teachers, and local employers. 

School-to-work programs can be effective in preparing students for active employment through a revised curriculum, instructional strategies, and new types of assessment that demonstrate student skills, such as portfolios. These programs may begin as early as elementary school and middle school levels with classroom activities and interest inventories that encourage awareness of career fields and exploration.

Emerging Role of Online Learning

It is likely that online learning opportunities will continue to play a role in workforce development. A 2010 survey conducted by the Sloan Consortium found that online enrollment increased by almost a million students from the year prior. In addition, "three-quarters of institutions report[ed] that of the economic downturn has increased demand for online courses and programs." As more people choose to work and go to school, online options provide convenience and flexibility not currently available through traditional programs.

New technologies are also creating the potential for innovations in online education and workforce training and development. Earlier this year, the University of Missouri announced new online courses through St. Louis Community College, presenting training in health information technology and electronic health records for future health workers. As new media techniques and tools evolve, the capabilities to deliver and assess learning opportunities will evolve with them.

What can you do to ease your school-to-work transition?

The school-to-work transition can be difficult, since not all programs are aligned with specific occupations or career fields. Actively pursue opportunities to gain practical experience along with your coursework. Some programs require internships, clinical hours, and practicum experiences as part of the curriculum. These programs offer the opportunity to directly experience the workplace environment in your field of study and often include hands-on tasks under supervision.

If your program does not require practical experience, consider creating your own opportunities and look for ways to get involved with professionals already working in the field you are hoping to enter after graduation. According to Noel-Levitz, "the majority of online learners are at the undergraduate level and employed full-time while working on their degree." [PDF] If you are already working in your field of study, or a closely related field, how can you leverage that work experience in your courses? Consider exploring opportunities with your current employer that will help you gain the experience you need to advance. 

Reach out to your local and state workforce and employment agencies to find out more about programs that may be available to you as a student and job seeker. How can they help you connect with potential employers? 

Making the move from school to work can be challenging but there are resources available. You are not the only one going through the process! Talk with your academic advisors and career center professionals to find out more as you prepare to make the transition.

July 13th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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