Maximizing Both Student & Employer Benefit: Career-Focused Learning

by Janelle Brown, Ellen Bohle, and Zachary Adams; Division of College, Career, and Technical Education

Early college and career experiences, like dual enrollment and work-based learning, are key components of the Tennessee Pathways initiative. Tennessee Pathways believes that these experiences are crucial because all students in Tennessee deserve to graduate with the skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace.

Work-based learning provides students with the opportunity to gain career-focused learning and real-world experience with local employers while also earning school credit. Work-based learning programs can serve as one of the many structured and connected opportunities that empower students to explore their career possibilities and embark on a pathway to continued success in higher education and the world of work.

Under the leadership of Career and Technical Education (CTE) Director Richard Skipper, Coffee County High School in Manchester piloted one of the state’s first work-based learning programs in the advanced manufacturing sector at the start of the 2016-17 school year. After observing a strong work-based learning program at Southwire, an electrical wiring company in Georgia, Richard Skipper decided he wanted to bring the career-focused learning model to Tennessee. VIAM, a manufacturer of automotive mats and a major employer in Manchester, became a natural and logical choice to begin building a partnership for the high school’s advanced manufacturing work-based learning program. Skipper forged a collaboration with Keith Hayes, VIAM’s chief operating officer, and in July 2016, the program got off the ground.

The program first recruited only seniors who were CTE concentrators in advanced manufacturing, but the program has grown to include students in STEM and automotive maintenance programs of study. Participating students work 28 hours per week in the afternoons and evenings and are required to attend school to report to work in the afternoon. By outlining this expectation, Coffee County ensured that student attendance and persistence would remain high. Students are paid a base rate of $10.50 per hour, but VIAM also provides an incentive bonus of an extra $1.00 per hour worked if students report to work on time for 90 consecutive working days. And with clear safety policies already in place for all employees that protected students while on the job, VIAM assembled a production cell specifically for student use. Because of this modification, the opportunity to work at VIAM was extended to students under the age of 18 for the first time in the company’s history. These design elements have contributed to the success of both VIAM and the students in the program.

Keith Hayes, however, did not anticipate such fast success. He was ready for plenty of lessons learned, mostly involving students making mistakes and errors, breaking rules, and reporting to work late. Instead, he observed the opposite: VIAM has seen the program become a profit center. Not only are students learning key employability skills like punctuality and teamwork, but they are also demonstrating a learning rate 30 percent faster than VIAM’s hourly employees.

Work-based learning programs like the one in Coffee County represent an opportunity for both students and employers alike to benefit. As students gain the practical skills that will help them navigate the world of work, employers benefit from the passion and ambition of students, both financially and culturally.

To learn more about building a series of structured and connected learning experiences like work-based learning from K-12 to postsecondary, visit the Tennessee Pathways website, follow us on Twitter @TN_Pathways, or email