Work experience guide

Work experience is a coordinated set of activities that take place in businesses or organizations in the community — rather than school settings or other specialized facilities — to prepare and support people with disabilities for competitive, integrated employment. Work experience is designed to advance job seekers toward community employment.

Through work experience, youth (age 14 or older) and adults engage in career exploration, discovery, career assessment and work-related training. These activities help people identify interests, strengths, skills, training and support needs, and ideal conditions for employment.

Options for work experience include informational interviews, job shadows, job tryouts, internships, apprenticeships and volunteer work.

Key characteristics of work experience

Work experience is: 

  • Learning focused. The job seeker learns about different jobs and work skills. The professional supporting the job seeker learns about his or her strengths, interests and ideal working conditions.
  • Person centered. The job seeker's known interests and emerging skills influence the experience selection.
  • Time limited. The experience is short-term.
  • Authentic. The job seeker does real activities, typically alongside real workers.
  • Individualized. The experience may be done individually or in a combination of individual and small group experiences.
  • Paid or unpaid. In some cases, an experience may be paid work — such as a summer youth internship or community-based assessment. Often, however, work experiences are unpaid.

Types of work experience

Informational interview

An informational interview is a meeting between a job seeker and an employer or key staff member. An informational interview: 

  • Gives the job seeker the opportunity to ask questions about a specific business, industry or job
  • May involve a tour of the facility
  • Usually lasts 15 to 30 minutes
  • Allows the job seeker and employer to get to know each other
  • May provide an opportunity to establish a subsequent work experience, such as a job shadow, tryout or internship

Job shadow

A job shadow involves a job seeker following and observing a competent employee in his or her daily activities, but performing no work. A job shadow: 

  • Provides the job seeker an example of job-specific tasks and work behaviors (but, again, doesn't allow the job seeker to do any work)
  • Usually lasts one to two hours
  • Promotes conversations about job skills, training requirements and job seeker interests

Job tryout

A job tryout involves a job seeker trying job-specific tasks, typically without payment. A job tryout:

  • Promotes further identification of interests and skills
  • Allows the job seeker to assess working conditions
  • Often develops as a discovery activity or after a job shadow
  • Usually lasts two to four hours
  • Ideally includes observation and documentation of the job seeker's efforts, skills and level of interest


An internship is a formal program designed to provide practical, extended experience for beginners in a job that's determined to be a good match for interests, skills and working conditions. An internship: 

  • Serves as on-the-job training in a field that interests the intern
  • Promotes the development of a specific skill set
  • Usually lasts one month to one year
  • Is completed under the general supervision of the sponsoring school or organization as well as a designated on-site supervisor (with the presence of other personnel not necessarily required at all times, depending on the funding source and internship goals)
  • Includes regular assessments between the intern and the sponsoring professional and employer
  • May be paid or unpaid (although, if unpaid, the intern can't replace another employee or fill an open position)
  • May result in a job offer (although the employer isn't obligated to offer a paid position at the end of the internship, nor is the intern required to accept a paid position if offered)


An apprenticeship is a formal program in which a job seeker learns the skills needed for a specific job by working with an experienced craftsperson. An apprenticeship: 

  • May include classroom lessons or other training in addition to paid work
  • Often lasts one to two years, depending on the specific trade
  • Typically continues as a traditional paid position for the same employer at the end of the apprenticeship

Volunteer work

Volunteer work for a nonprofit organization or project isn't a substitute for paid work but may be considered to prepare a job seeker for community employment. Volunteer work: 

  • Should take place where people with and without disabilities are also volunteering   
  • Should benefit both the community and the volunteer
  • Must be of the volunteer's own free will and without coercion
  • Cannot be paid
  • Cannot be a replacement for paid staff

Begin with person-centered planning

Before setting up a work experience, ensure that each job seeker has started a person-centered planning process. This process:                                               

  • Is led by the job seeker
  • Helps to determine the job seeker's starting point and goals for community employment (based on interests, preferences, skills, talents and conditions for success)
  • Helps to identify the kind of work experiences that will help the job seeker move toward his or her employment goals

Decide the purpose 

Work experiences provide an opportunity for targeted skill development while supporting the ultimate goal of helping the job seeker find meaningful work. To arrange the most appropriate work experiences, consider the following questions:   

Where should the work experience take place? 

A work experience location should be selected based on the job seeker's needs and goals. To find businesses or organizations already familiar to the job seeker, survey your team, the job seeker and the family for local connections. These established networks are often more invested in the job seeker and open to hosting a work experience. 

Also consider whether a series of work experiences at different businesses or organizations would be beneficial. For example, a job seeker who's just beginning to explore work or is unsure of interests or skills would benefit from having a variety of places to explore. A job seeker who has an employment plan in mind may benefit from a more intensive experience with a single business or organization that allows hands-on learning. 

When should the work experience take place? 

The timing of work experiences depends on many factors, including availability of the employer, the job seeker, and school or program staff. 

Work experiences for youth can often be arranged during school hours, which usually align with business hours. The same is true for adults who are involved in day programming or who are otherwise available during the day. Some job seekers, however, may be interested in exploring work that isn't done during standard business hours or is available only at specific times (such as during the summer). In this case, the employment team will need to evaluate the best way to provide support for such experiences. 

How long should the work experience last?

The length of the work experience should be linked to the job seeker's goals. For example, job seekers with little experience or those who've had limited opportunity to gain work skills may benefit from a series of informational interviews or several one- to two-hour job shadows or short-term job tryouts. Once the job seeker identifies preferences and emerging skill sets, a more in-depth experience to learn specific job skills may be appropriate. 

Who drives the decisions?

The job seeker is generally the primary decision maker throughout the process. The employment team should consist of people invited by the job seeker, such as family members, friends, favorite community members, teachers, program staff and specialized employment personnel.

Is permission needed from a parent or guardian? 

If the job seeker is a minor, a parent or guardian should be involved in work experience decisions. The job seeker's school or program may want a signed release or permission slip detailing approved work experience activities. 

What about transportation? 

A transportation plan is needed for each work experience. If the ultimate goal is community employment, the ideal transportation plan would be supportive of that outcome. This may mean learning how to use the local public transportation system, how to schedule supported transportation, or how to request and use transportation from friends, family or other contacts.

If the job seeker's school or program provides transportation for work experiences, it's important to consider transportation options that will be available after the program ends. 

Who will directly support the job seeker during the work experience? 

Staffing levels during a work experience are based on the job seeker's needs, the goals of the experience and the employer's requirements. Given the learning opportunities, a teacher or job coach is often present during the experience. The teacher or coach may facilitate the experience as well as assess what the job seeker is learning.

For long-term experiences, such as internships or apprenticeships, the job seeker may begin to increase independence without the constant presence of a teacher or coach. In these cases, the teacher or coach will work closely with the employer or supervisor to ensure that the job seeker is meeting the goals of the work experience. 

Should the work experience be for an individual or a group? 

Ideally, job seekers will have one-on-one time in the community to focus on specific jobs and tasks. To build relationships and workplace social skills, it's also important to set aside time for the job seeker to engage with employers, managers and other workers. An individualized approach allows the employment team to tailor the experience based on the job seeker's skills, interests and specific learning needs. 

There may be some work experiences that are conducive to small group involvement. In this case, each participant should still be involved in an individualized planning process to identify skills, interests and ideal working conditions. The employment team must also ensure that personalized support can be given to each job seeker in the group. Job seekers shouldn't participate in a group experience that isn't interesting to them or doesn't provide appropriate support.

Define the work experience

Once you've identified an employer who's committed to providing a work experience, consider the type of experience that would be most beneficial to the job seeker and least likely to interrupt the organization's typical workflow.

To become familiar with the organization, you might conduct informational interviews with key staff, study job descriptions, tour the facility and observe the various tasks being performed. Identify the "go-to people" who can ensure that natural supports are in place.

Then, write a description of the work experience — including scheduling guidelines — to ensure that support staff are aware of what's expected and are able to consistently communicate those expectations. Aim for the highest level of independence for the job seeker. 

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