More to Offer: The Swiss Vocational Education System

Published may. 09, 2013

Most U.S. educators give me a quizzical look when I mention that I just returned from a study tour of the Swiss Vocational System with ten representatives of the Pathways to Prosperity State Network at the invitation of the Swiss government. Isn’t that the country known for watches, skiing, and chocolate? Well, yes, but Switzerland has arguably the world’s most competitive economy as assessed by the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report as well as the best vocational education system, as featured in Stephen Sawchuk’s 4/23 Education Week article.

The two are related.

The Swiss vocational system serves around 75% of 16- to 19-year-olds who work and earn apprenticeship wages 3-4 days a week while completing academic requirements at school.

The Swiss system demolishes our stereotypes about vocational education—it is completely permeable, meaning no “dead ends.” After a three-year apprenticeship, and a few years of work, you can enter a university of applied sciences, a professional education college, or do an extra academic year to qualify for the “theory” university. And if you want to switch from academic to vocational to attend a university of applied sciences—as some do—you must do a year of work experience.

Youth unemployment in Switzerland is around 3.3% (ages 15-24)—compared to 16.2% in the United States (ages 16-24)—and over 90% of students complete an upper-secondary credential, the equivalent of one to two years of college. PISA scores are also high—even though most Swiss children are taught in German, a language few speak at home. About 25% of residents are born outside of Switzerland—and need to learn not only German if they live in the German-speaking section of the country, but Italian, French, and increasingly English.

As is Germany, Switzerland is beginning to export its vocational system because Swiss and German employers in the U.S., of whom there are many—i.e., Novartis, Roche, BMW, and Volkswagen—can’t find the workers they need and so are starting company partnerships with schools and community colleges to build worker pipelines. For example, Volkswagen just hired 3,000 people for a new plant in Chattanooga and is working with the local community college, tech center, and a STEM high school to create the talent pipeline.

So it’s not so strange that leaders from California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee—seven of the nine Pathways to Prosperity State Network states—would want to check out this system. Sawchuk’s EdWeek piece shows two aspects of the Swiss system that are worth additional emphasis: how much responsibility teenagers take on at age 16 in Switzerland and the degree to which employers are committed to building a talent pipeline of “young professionals,” as the apprentices are called.

Because of the career awareness activities that start early in students’ schooling and include middle school short-stays in companies, adolescents as young as 15 know enough about careers to choose an apprenticeship area, apply, sign a contract, and start working at age 16 very happily.

On our visit, we saw 16-year-old bankers assisting hedge fund managers and even taking on their own clients. We saw young factory workers in high-tech surroundings programming computers to make complex machine parts. Apprentices make an initial salary of around $800USD per month, which goes up to around $1,000 per month in the third year. Many young professionals in the Swiss vocational program change career pathways along the way; This is not only tolerated but also encouraged. After all, the first job is just that—a transition to being a working adult. Apprentices also often switch companies with the encouragement of the training company.

About one-third of all Swiss employers participate in the apprenticeship system and see themselves as educators for their industry sectors. As one banking executive told us, about 10 to 15% percent of their employment slots are “educational,” meaning, they belong to young people. Substantial evidence shows that the employers get a return on investment even though the Swiss government does not subsidize their participation in the system. See studies by Swiss economist Stefan Wolter on apprenticeship and how to finance it. This is because young people can do productive work by the third or fourth year of their apprenticeships and are still earning training wages.

Of course, my state of Massachusetts—which is about the same size as Switzerland—is not going to grow mountains, make chocolate and watches, and take on full-scale apprenticeship programs. But there are lessons here for the U.S. if only to remind us how little we ask 15-year-olds to do, and how much they really can accomplish with a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. It also reminds us that our companies should have a longer planning horizon—as Swiss companies do— so that U.S. employers too would see the benefit of investing in young people to grow their talent pipelines.

Listen to Nancy Hoffman discuss this topic on Marketplace (at the 3:04 mark).