Going to school and getting a job are, it turns out, two very different pursuits. 

The reality is that when it comes to finding job opportunities, the skills, knowledge, and potential that schools are designed to foster are only part of the game. Work experiences, and the professional skills and networks gained in the course of those experiences, command a premium, especially in a tight labor market. 

This dynamic exacts real costs on young people trying to break into the world of work.

To appreciate those costs, look no further than current youth unemployment rates, which have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. As economist Elise Gould put it in a recent interview on NPR, when employers have options, they will hire people with more experience. That puts high school- and college-aged students at an impossible disadvantage. “Young workers are left out in the cold,” Gould said. 

What may be rational behavior on the part of employers leaves the next generation in a catch-22: young people can’t gain the work experience employers demand if they can’t access work experiences in the first place. 

Education systems espousing a commitment to “career readiness” should take note of this trap. High schools in particular should ask themselves: what steps might we take to mitigate the experience chasm our students face? What might we do to expand access to work experiences for all students, especially those that the system routinely puts on the wrong side of opportunity gaps? And what particular types of work experience should we invest in right now to equip students with the skills and networks they’ll need in the future?

Luckily, there’s emerging research and practice that could guide high schools’ efforts to arm more students with meaningful work experience today that pays dividends tomorrow.

How Work Experiences Build ‘Social Capital’

The upside of providing young people with work experience is getting more attention in recent years. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released a report on career readiness. Based on the longitudinal PISA data, the researchers specifically identified consistent evidence that “better than expected adult employment outcomes” can be linked to teenage participation in part-time work, internships and volunteering. The researchers also dug deeper behind what is driving those “better than expected” outcomes, identifying four distinct benefits: knowledge, skills, social capital, and confidence navigating the labor market in the future.

In our work at the Christensen Institute, we’ve been digging into one of those four benefits that too often gets left to chance: social capital. Social capital describes the value and resources contained in our social networks. The strength and size of networks has immense impact on job prospects: in fact, an estimated half of all jobs come through personal connections. 

Data like this suggest that gaining work experience isn’t just a proxy for gaining professional skills; it’s also a route to expanding professional networks that can lend information, advice, and referrals down the line.

In an interview with me last month, the OECD report’s lead researcher, Anthony Mann, spelled out why schools should be paying special attention to students’ access to social capital. “To get ahead in work, you need a very broad network so that you know lots of different people and lots of different stuff. This is one of the great things schools can do…be a real agent for democratizing access to useful [career] information,” Mann said.

Measuring what matters

A range of nonprofits and schools, like Big Picture Learning, Future Focused Education, and Comp Sci High School, offer compelling case studies of organizations trying to capitalize on the power of networks, especially in a tight and turbulent labor market. These innovative high school models are taking note of Mann’s observation and starting to measure whether students are growing their professional networks, not just gaining skills. 

For example, as part of its X3 internship program, Future Focused Education (FFE) monitors student surveys for new names of supportive relationships and professional contacts that appear from one survey to the next, including X3 staff or individuals from their internship placement.

Others, like some schools in the Big Picture Learning network, are issuing “dynamic” survey questions about relationships through the network’s internship management app ImBlaze, at a more frequent cadence. Questions like “What adults do you plan to work with today [in your internship]?” not only provide school staff with valuable information, but can nudge students to be more deliberate relationship-builders in the course of their work day.

Equity in employment opportunities

Measurement and equity also go hand in hand. Understanding who is gaining access to work experience and the nature of that experience is critical if schools hope to ensure that all students, not just the best resourced or well connected, are set up for professional options down the line. 

Troubling data on college students’ work experiences suggests that although students across the socioeconomic spectrum work at similar rates, the nature of the work differs by class, with higher-income students more likely to access internships and apprenticeships directly aligned with their career goals. 

High schools looking to increase access to work experience should attend to looming gaps like these. Comp Sci High School, a high school model with a focus on combining inquiry-based learning, work-based learning, and restorative practices offers rigorous academics alongside computer science curriculum. Students are asked about how the connections they are forging in the course of work-based learning connect to their future goals. Survey items include: “I met with an adult or older peer who did the type of work I am interested in for my future” and “I met with an adult or older peer who I will reach out to in the future to help me with my job/career goals.” 

Building students’ access to work experience is a critical investment to arm more students’ for the future, especially as the recession shuts young people out of jobs. 

Moreover, expanding access to experiences while also collecting data mark an important stride in high school work-based learning models. Better data on networks—not just skills—can lend program staff, students, and employers transparency into whether students are actually accessing the well-documented social upsides that work experiences can offer.

This post originally appeared on the Future Focused Education blog.


  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher

    Julia Freeland Fisher leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research.