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How Work-Based Learning Can Help You Explore Career Fit

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You take a new car for a spin before buying it, and you test out a mattress before making a decision — why shouldn’t you try on a new career before committing to it? With work-based learning, you can do just that.


This type of experience allows you to work in real offices and workplaces to gain professional experience and learn more about the type of work you’re interested in. Learn more about these opportunities and how they can help you make a confident decision about your future career. 

What is work-based learning?

A formal education isn’t the only way to prepare for a career — learning on the job can teach you new skills as well as give you a more realistic idea of what a career in that field will be like. You’ll get the chance to practice skills in real-world situations, as well as valuable experience in a professional setting. It can even result in useful contacts and references for future jobs. 


Learning on the job can take many forms, but commonly fall under categories such as internships, apprenticeships, and volunteer work. In positions like this, you can get a feel for what working in that job is actually like. You’ll get a realistic look at the tasks and responsibilities of a given role and a sense of how your interests and strengths align with the job in question. 


Work-based learning also gives you a chance to practice skills you might not get to use much in the classroom. Communication, leadership, and working within a team are all valuable talents that you can hone during these opportunities. 

4 common types of work-based learning 

The types of on-the-job learning are almost as varied as the types of careers out there. Here are some to consider.   

Job shadowing

This can be a good first step as you start to explore new careers since the time commitment is low. When you shadow a professional, you’ll observe an employee for a few hours or days as they go about their daily work responsibilities. You can ask questions, attend meetings, see who the worker interacts with most, and get an idea of the general day-to-day routine in a given role.


You probably won’t get much hands-on experience, but you could gain valuable insights into what life looks like in your job of choice. Shadowing is typically unpaid and you usually won’t get school credit for it, but it can offer a bigger picture of what the career in question looks like in reality. 

Volunteer work

Volunteering can be a great way to hone new skills while contributing to your community. Volunteer work, also known as service learning, can be short-term (until you complete a specific project, for example) or ongoing, with no defined end date. You might receive some on-the-job training to help you complete the tasks you’re assigned, depending on the role. 


While this can be a great way to pick up new skills in a low-pressure environment, volunteer work is usually unpaid. You may receive a small stipend or academic credit in some cases; at the very least, you should leave with some relevant experience to add to your resume or college applications.    


An internship is a short-term program (usually ranging from a few months up to a year) that allows you to work with a local employer in an entry-level role. A good internship should expose you to the different facets of a job or industry while allowing you to develop your professional skills in the workplace.  


Think of internships as the step beyond shadowing — you’ll be in the workplace among professionals, but rather than just observing, you’ll have tasks and responsibilities of your own to manage. Internships can be paid or unpaid, and can often be taken for school credit. 


Apprenticeships are typically longer-term placements (think a year or more) that provide on-the-job training and often formal instruction in a classroom setting. These positions are most common in skilled trades such as carpentry, plumbing, and electric work.  


You should get paid for the work you complete during an apprenticeship, and many offer pay increases as you gain more skills. While the education you get will be highly focused on a specific job, you’ll have the applicable skills — and credentials — you need to succeed when you complete the program.   

Bottom line

Classroom learning is important for any career, but contributing to a real-world workplace offers a different type of education. Opportunities like the ones listed above give you the chance to hone professional skills, learn the details about interesting jobs, and start building your network — all of which will be useful when it comes time to start applying for your first career-specific job. 

But remember, work-based learning can also help you discover what you don’t want in a career. Not every job shadow or internship will be successful, and you might find that certain jobs don’t fit your personality like you thought they would. In that case, apply what you learned from the experience and move on to the next intriguing career on your list.

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