Archived Information

Tried and True: September 1997--The information in this publication was current as of September 1997, and has not been updated since. Some services described in the publication may no longer be available.
[Instructional Content and Practice]

Vocational Mentoring

An Experience-Based Career Education Program for
High School Juniors and Seniors at Risk of Not Graduating

Developed and tested by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL)

What is the idea behind Vocational Mentoring?

Vocational Mentoring was developed by Portland Public Schools (Grant High School) to serve underachieving youths who do not necessarily qualify for educational service programs that have income and other restrictive criteria. Modeled after the successful Experience Based Career Education (EBCE) program started in 1971 by NWREL, Vocational Mentoring provides an integrated approach to career development, vocational training or apprenticeship, and academic achievement.

NWREL has provided technical assistance and staff training for vocational mentoring and will assist other communities interested in adapting the model. The program is grounded in the skills and attitudes that the business community deems critical for success. The goal is for each participant to graduate from high school with demonstrated employ-ability skills, a well-defined occupational focus, and a plan for further education or training.

Students involved spend half a day in regular high school and half a day in the Vocational Mentoring program. In Portland, the program is housed in a comprehensive medical facility, chosen because of the wide variety of occupational opportunities it offers students. Career explorations range from the dialysis center to the surgery recovery room, from clerical work and food service to gardening and maintenance.

Students spend a portion of their time working on two required academic subjects in the learning center (space donated by the hospital), and the remaining time working alongside vocational mentors. These are hospital employees who have agreed to help students learn the general employability skills needed to succeed at any job, as well as the specific skills required for selected occupations.

Classroom subjects are taught in the context of occupational realities confronted daily by the student and mentor. An essential element of program design is to teach students that basic skills are necessary and used in the workplace. This provides meaning for students who may not realize the value of classroom learning. Typical Vocational Mentoring strategies include career exploration, internships or apprenticeships, individualized learning projects, individual and group counseling, and employability seminars.

Participants in the program are representative of the 25 percent of youth who never obtain a high school diploma. They are students who have done poorly in the traditional high school setting and who face numerous barriers to successful transition to higher education or entry into the labor market. Portland's Vocational Mentoring program was made up mostly of inner-city, minority, and low-income students. Nearly all had poor attendance records and below average or average grades before participating in the program. In addition, many were involved in gang activity, the juvenile justice system, drug and alcohol abuse, or teen parenting.

What does research say about how this idea can help teaching and learning?

The Vocational Mentoring program came to life during a time of large-scale reflection, legislation, and statewide planning concerning the quality of Oregon's work force and education system. Vocational Mentoring began in 1989 as a significant component of Portland's growing portfolio of dropout prevention programs. Participants were juniors and seniors who were at risk of not graduating due to lack of credits, lack of motivation, and lack of understanding the connections between learning and earning.

Additional concern stemmed from a report issued in 1990 by the National Center on Education and the Economy entitled America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages. It found American business was losing its competitive edge. It concluded that productivity growth was only a fraction of what it had been in the 1960's, and it was significantly lower than that of international competitors. It also cited that cheaper foreign labor and improvements in production equipment and processes had replaced the need for many American low-skill jobs.

Taking all of this into account, and because job growth is predicted in areas demanding higher skills than ever before, programs such as Vocational Mentoring make a calculated effort to expose at-risk high school students to the realities of today's workplace. The program is cognizant of the fact that students in this target group are often contextual learners, meaning that they need to see both the big picture and the rationale for what they are learning. Putting students in daily contact with the work force creates this context for them.

The American Society for Training and Development's report, Workplace Basics, The Skills Employers Want and The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills Report (The SCANS Report from the Department of Labor) both very clearly define the skills that are critical for success in today's work force. These skills include problem solving, communication, flexibility, initiative, and knowing how to use resources. In other words, employers now want more than "a strong back and willing hands." Vocational Mentoring concentrates on teaching these essential skill areas so that its students graduate with a sense of confidence and self-direction. Assessment is authentically conducted in the context of individual student goals and the community-based program design.

How was this program tested?

Knowing that "the model works" for Experience Based Career Education (EBCE), Portland chose to adapt it for a very at-risk population, and to house it in a hospital in order to closely approximate the real world of work.

Of the participants involved in the program to date, approximately 85 percent have remained in the program, thus preventing the majority of these very high-risk students from dropping out of school. Improvements in grade point averages (GPAs) and credits earned also indicate that Vocational Mentoring is a successful strategy. The following statements describe the performance of 27 sample students involved in the program, comparing grade point averages and credits earned during the spring semester of the year before the students were involved with the program to those of the fall semester of the next year when they were program participants:

What communities and states are using this program?

Schools in the Portland, Oregon, area continue implementing this program in a variety of settings.

What's involved in using this program in my school and community?

Many variables are involved with the cost of implementing Vocational Mentoring. Schools interested in the program need to make provision for training the staff, recruiting business partners, planning individualized curriculum that integrates work and learning, setting up a learning center (if not housed in a classroom), and purchasing of classroom materials and supplies. Daily operational costs include one teacher per approximately 20 students, an instructional assistant and clerical aide, transportation for students if the program is off campus, maintenance of a business advisory council, and insurance if district coverage is inadequate for chosen program logistics and strategies.

The Vocational Mentoring program revolves around collaboration with the business community and, while the program in Portland is housed in a hospital, it need not be located in the business itself. The original EBCE model uses the business community as a learning resource with the learning center on the high school campus or in a building operated by the school. The program can exist in a business, as an off-campus learning program, or even as a school-within-a-school. It can be full or part time and open to the entire student body.

A program such as Vocational Mentoring can be implemented in any setting, urban or rural, as evidenced by EBCE success. It is a program that is very adaptable to any community large or small, rich or poor, and to many different types of businesses, providing they can offer a wide variety of work experience and dedicated mentors.

Key steps to implementation include

  1. Study the student needs and determine potential resources.

  2. Prepare a comprehensive plan for adapting and implementing the program.

  3. Secure business community commitment.

  4. Recruit students.

  5. Pilot the program.

  6. Assess the program and student outcomes and modify the program as needed.

A minimum of 4 months would be required for steps 1-4, but 6 months would ensure a higher quality result.

Costs associated with implementing this program vary, depending on the components of the program being used.


Andrea Baker
Education and Work Program
101 S.W. Main Street, Suite 500
Portland, OR 97204
Phone: (503) 275-9595
Fax: (503) 275-0443


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