Contextual Vocational Education

The Basic Idea:

  • Provide youth entering the job market with the opportunity to learn a job skill—on the job—while completing their education.

How it works:

  • A school or other organization partners with industry to train youth for the skills in a specific job, while they are in high school or just after graduation—often in conjunction with a community or technical college for college credit.
  • The jobs youth train for are examined closely to determine the skills needed to perform them, and curricula are developed to provide those skills.
  • Groups of students accompany instructor to learn job skills in the workplace, reinforced by classroom instruction.
  • Part of the curriculum may be replaced with contextual learning on the job—e.g., a math requirement might be met by actually taking measurements and reading blueprints at work.
  • In some cases, the students are paid a training wage by the employer or by the training program, providing an additional incentive for participation and for staying in school.

Who Does It:

  • Usually a public-private partnership including, for example:
  • A high school, possibly with a technical school or community college
  • One or more local employers
  • One or more nonprofit or governmental organizations


  • It keeps youth who “learn with their hands” engaged and in-school.
  • This offers an extremely effective way to teach job-specific skills.
  • School revenue streams can often partially or fully fund the programs. So might employers once it works!
  • Federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) youth program funding can be used to help support this approach for qualifying (high-risk) students.


  • It can take a lot of work to establish the industry partnerships necessary for this to succeed.
  • Labor department safety regulations for child workers can make it difficult or impossible to train in some industries or with some types of tools and equipment.
  • This takes the right instructor, one who is experienced in the target industry—which can be difficult to find and to hire, given teacher licensing requirements.

Simplicity Index

Tough at the Start—But Fruitful! This can take a lot of work to set up, but lots of help and models are available, And existing welfare-to-work or other government funding—and even employers—can help pay for it.

Quilt It

  • Keep It: Training can incorporate financial education so the students better understand how to manage the income they ultimately receive on the job.
  • Grow It: Training can also alert youth to matched saving for further education using IDAs.

Examples and Resources

YouthBuild, USA partners with rural and urban YouthBuild chapters across the country to help young people earn their diplomas, learn job skills and serve their communities by building affordable housing.

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RuFES is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group.
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