Taking the Worrry Out of Work-Based Learning.
Nationwide, employer participation in work-based learning follows the good news-bad news formula. The good news: Between December 1995 and June 1996, employer participation increased by nearly 50 percent from 135,000 to 200,000 businesses, according to the National School-to-Work Office. The bad news: The STW Office also reports that fewer than 1 percent of U.S. employers are involved in school-to-careers programs.
For employer participation to grow, schools must understand and explain pertinent laws, including the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and child labor laws; brush up on liability and legal terms; ensure employees' involvement; and foster open communication that avoids misperceptions and assures employers that work-based learning can benefit everyone involved.
1 Know the law.
Workers' compensation and liability exposure are the top-rated barriers to employer involvement in work-based learning. There are simple answers to many employer concerns, and when the answers aren't so simple, turn to specific guidelines to help. Here is a breakdown of Title VI, section 602 of the STWOA that is designed to guarantee the rights of workers and students entering the workplace under school programs:
* Students may not displace any current employee.
* Students may not be placed in positions where a worker has been temporarily laid off or in positions that were previously affected by reductions in force.
* School-to-careers (STC) programs may not impair existing contracts for service or collective bargaining agreements.
* Students must be provided with workplaces that meet safety and health requirements.
* STC programs must not violate any person's civil rights.
* Students must be given adequate supervision by skilled adult workers.
* No portion of funds allocated under STC programs may be used to provide wages for students.
Before you persuade employers to get involved, you must allay any anxiety they may have about the legal side of the matters, which is addressed in FLSA. Enacted to protect the rights, safety and well-being of all workers in the United States, FLSA contains the federal government's child labor provisions. The tricky part is identifying when a work-based learning activity is a learning experience and when it is employment, as defined by the FLSA. Here are four FLSA provisions that must be met to avoid categorizing a student as an employee:
* The student receives ongoing instruction at the employer's work site, where he is closely supervised throughout the experience.
* The student's placement at the work site does not result in the displacement of a regular employee.
* After the learning experience, the student has no rights to a job. (This doesn't, however, preclude employers from offering students employment.)
* The employer, student and parent or guardian must understand that the student isn't entitled to wages for time spent in the learning experience. Students may accept a stipend of actual expenses.
If all four criteria are met, then the learning experience isn't "employment" as defined by the FLSA and subsequently does not fall under FLSA provisions. Child labor laws wouldn't apply either, but you should be familiar with them. Briefly, child labor regulations stipulate minimum ages for different types of employment and the maximum number of hours that can be worked daily and weekly. They also prohibit some nighttime and hazardous work.
2 Become an expert in legal issues.
Safety issues--including general liability, workers' compensation, exposure to risk and accident insurance--are another major concern for employers. The mere possibility of any of these discourages many businesses from participating in work-based learning programs. Several states, however, are solving these problems in new and creative ways.
In Maine, a quasi-governmental group known as the Maine Career Advantage serves as a broker between schools and businesses, taking care of all work-based learning matters from student placement to acting as the employer of record for workers' compensation and other types of insurance.
On a practical level, it relieves the burden of liability on employers. Businesses pay a fee that covers students' stipends, tuition and insurance. With that money, the group purchases workers' compensation and general liability insurance that includes personal injury, fire damage and lesser medical expenses.
Educators must show prospective partners they understand their concerns about liability--that everyone is on the same side. Provide permission slips to tell guardians the nature, location and details of an activity. Consent forms let participants and parents or guardians know the risks involved.
Let's assume the worst has happened--a student has been injured. If she is not covered under workers' compensation, liability issues become sticky. Each instance of injury must be looked at individually, and court opinions will vary given circumstances and state laws. Prevention is the real key to avoid these problems.
Develop a training guide that covers issues like work site analysis, identification of hazards, a hazard reporting system, an accident investigation and injury/illness analysis system, emergency planning and preparation and a safety and health training program. Educators also can look at individual job designs to help achieve a higher degree of workplace safety.
3 Get on par with labor partners.
If employees--unionized or not--aren't fully on board, they can effectively sink all your good intentions. School must address employees' concerns in a nondivisive way for a work-based learning system to run smoothly. Educators must capitalize on union connections. Schools that do not involve organized labor and front-line workers are missing a tremendous opportunity to provide comprehensive and effective services to their students. The STW Office describes a number of strategies schools can employ in cooperation with labor unions:
* Build partnerships with local union chapters to take advantage of their proximity to employers.
* Identify growing occupations. Employees can identify areas of growth and direct schools toward jobs with the most potential.
* Enhance the quality of work-based learning. Labor representatives can help identify appropriate jobs for student learners.
* Link academic and occupational learning. Organized labor can tell educators exactly which academic skills are needed for a particular job or career.
* Develop skill standards and credential techniques.
* Develop assessment mechanisms.
* Facilitate mentorships.
* Emphasize occupational health and safety standards.
Educators must be prepared to accommodate union needs and listen to what the union wants from the relationship, especially in the preliminary stages. You also need to support employees throughout the work-based learning process. The AFL-CIO recommends that employers demonstrate their commitment to work-based learning by giving labor representatives paid time off to participate in meetings, classroom activities and mentoring.
Of course, not every place is unionized. The best way to help enforce compliance with labor laws in a non-unionized workplace is to draft a checklist, working with the employee representative, that covers STWOA and FLSA provisions.
4 Open the communication channels.
When you've covered your legal and labor bases, one question remains: How do you get nonparticipating employers to listen? In any communication, sometimes it's not what you say so much as how you say it.
Concentrate on appealing to employers' interests and neutralizing their concerns. It is important to communicate clearly and positively that what business stands to gain through involvement far outweighs any risks employers may assume. Here are some ways that educators can open the communication channels and show businesses that they are there to help:
* Share responsibility. Understanding legal and safety matters is not only vital to working effectively with employers but to meeting your responsibilities to the students you place at a work site.
* Balance barriers against benefits. Don't let imagined barriers throw you off course. There's a fine line between acknowledging difficulties and risks and making too large an issue out of them. For example, Boston-area hospitals in the early 1990s misread the unions and decided it would hurt job security to invite students to work on nursing floors, only to be told by the unions themselves that it was not a problem.
* Think legally, act locally. Work-based learning works best at the local level. With that in mind, develop safe, legal work-based learning systems by subscribing to the energy, ideas and vigilance of local businesses and community leaders.
* Get everyone involved. Bringing all parties to the table can effectively derail any future problems. Listen to and incorporate the ideas of employers, workers, insurance agencies, students and parents. Many experts suggest that using a third-party broker is the way to go.
Alice Potosky is a marketing consultant in Alexandria, Va., who has worked with educational organizations for the past 15 years.
This article is excerpted from Taking the Worry out of Work-Based Learning, available from the Association for Career and Technical Education for $27.95 ($24.95 for ACTE members). To order, call (800) 826-9972.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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