Does School-to-Work Make a Difference? Assessing Students’ Perceptions and Practices of Career-Related Skills

In Journal of Vocational Education and Training 57 (2) (2005) pp 219-236

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act in the USA was intended to help students learn employability skills and to prepare for careers or further education. Not many quantitative studies have been conducted to inform policymakers and teachers of the success of the programme. This article is one of the few that assesses the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in practice. It finds that activity type and grade level of students are important factors in the success of programmes with regards to skills learned and knowledge gained. Many resources seem to be under-utilised by students.

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act was enacted in the USA in 1994 but federal funding to support partnerships between schools and businesses stopped in 2001. At the time of publication, the majority of programmes were funded by local businesses and stakeholders in the local community. The main objective of the Act was to make vocational subjects a more integral part of the curriculum and, ultimately, to create a more seamless transition between school and the workplace.

The authors assessed the School-to-Work initiative by using data from a survey of eleventh and twelfth grade students in a school district in south-western Pennsylvania which had a School-to-Work partnership set up by federal funds. The survey was administrated in eight schools in 1998-1999 to eleventh grade students, and then to the same students in 1999-2000 when they were in the twelfth grade. The survey aimed to be a self-assessment of the students’ reflection of their knowledge and skills learned from career-related activities. Career-related activities were considered to include having guest speakers into the classroom, finding information from a schools careers advisor, contacting employers/employees for career-related guidance, work shadowing and internships. The questions examined the following themes:

  • Students’ learning of basic and career-related skills from their school;
  • Students’ knowledge and use of career-related resources;
  • Students’ participation in career-related activities at their school.

In terms of knowledge and use of career-related resources, it was found that a greater percentage of students knew about career-related resources than used such resources, including the guidance office, the Job Center, the Chamber of Commerce, and career-related books and software. In addition, there were significant differences between eleventh and twelfth grade students for knowledge and use of the guidance office, career-related software and knowledge of the Job Center, with twelfth grade students more likely to know about and use these resources than eleventh graders. About a half of eleventh graders and a quarter of twelfth graders reported that they had not used the career resources and guidance in their schools.

In terms of participation in career-related activities, the majority of students were more engaged with school-based activities rather than work-based activities regardless of grade level. A higher proportion of students participated in activities such as volunteering in the community, working on class projects and workplace visits than activities such as internships, talking to teachers about career interests, job shadowing, or going to a college or careers fair.

In terms of students’ learning of employability skills at school, most students replied that they ‘sometimes’ learned skills such as creative thinking and decision making, and ‘sometimes’ learned how to write CVs and cover letters at school. Twelfth grade students learned about cover letter and resumé writing slightly more often than eleventh graders but there were no other statistically significant differences between grades for other job skills (for example writing applications and practising interviewing techniques) in the survey. Despite the importance of employability skills, and the level to which the School to Work Programmes emphasised these, pupils did not seem to learn these as frequently as expected.

Overall, grade level and activity type were important factors in the level of knowledge and skills learned through career-related activities, with twelfth grade students tending to be involved in more career-related activities than eleventh grade students. Recommendations for increasing the knowledge and skills of both ages include increasing awareness of careers resources, using such resources in a classroom-based setting, and providing students with firsthand experience, such as organising talks with business leaders and directors.

The main limitation of this study was that it focused on one school district in one area of Pennsylvania, USA. Further research would need to be undertaken to assess whether these findings are representative for other schools, districts and states.

Does School-to-Work Make a Difference? Assessing Students’ Perceptions and Practices of Career-Related Skills