The Gold Standard: The Swiss Vocational Education and Training System

The Swiss economy had been growing with full employment until last month when the central bank decided to decouple the Franc from the Euro. That boosted appeal for those mysterious banks but it was a pain for exporting chocolate makers.

Despite what might be slower growth this year, Swiss economy minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann told CNBC they will continue a smart growth policy. “Growth does not mean volume, but quality. We invest in innovative activities,” he said. “We are also looking at ways to lower bureaucracy.”

The formula has been working. At over $80,000 per year, Switzerland’s income per capita is the third highest in Europe after Luxembourg and Norway, and the fourth highest in the world. Switzerland enjoys virtually full employment, with a youth unemployment rate that is the lowest among developed countries.

Education power couple Nancy Hoffman, Jobs for the Future (JFF), and Robert Schwartz, Harvard Graduate School of Education (Harvard GSE), recently said it’s the Swiss vocational education and training system (VET) that deserves much of the credit for economic success, it, “Prepares a broad cross-section of students including high achievers for careers in a range of occupations.”

“VET did not build the Swiss economic engine; it serves and contributes to it,” concluded Hoffman and Schwartz.

In a forthcoming paper written by Hoffman and Schwartz, published by the Center on International Education Benchmarking of the National Center on Education and the Economy said VET, which serves 70% of Swiss young people, enjoys very strong support from Swiss employers, who credit it with being a major contributor to the continuing vitality and strength of the Swiss economy.

Young people in the labor force are at about the same rates as the 25 to 64 year old population, likely due to the seamless transition of almost all youth from apprenticeship to a full time job. About 30% of Swiss companies, participants in the Swiss vocational education system, host this sort of “educational” employee. Students get paid less than the minimum wage, still attractive for a teenager living at home.

VET learners rotate between work, work-based courses, and school. Their learning is personalized with interests and talents at the core of their training. Options for further study and changes of course are encouraged and open.

There are 21 areas of specialization including banking, retail, public administration, and IT. Each industry sector in partnership with the State Secretariat for Education, Research, and Innovation (SERI), develops qualifications and assessments for the industry, establishes curriculum, and provides through their affiliated training companies varying amounts of coursework during the three or four year upper secondary vocational education.

Three examples include:

  • The Center for Young Professionals trains 16 to 19 years olds for banking. Founded by five banks, CYP orients apprentices to the standards and practices of the entire banking industry. Its pedagogic tenets replicate the requirements of the workplace and include learner autonomy, blended learning, problem solving, and teamwork in which learning is co-constructed among peers.
  • LIBS is non-profit training consortium across parking lot from ABB Turbocharger. Students fill orders for which LIBS receives $3 million. Students can readily present an account of the work they do, why it is important to the company, and why they chose it.
  • Bildungszentrum Interlaken (BZI) is a deeply impressive vocational school training for occupations as diverse as electronics, elder care, hospitality, and construction.

With a growing percentage of youth born outside the country, Switzerland is more diverse than you think. They have been successful at building a talent pipeline of young professionals needed to produce high quality goods and services that sell well at high prices.

CTE Policy. Given growing regional interest in high skill employability, Switzerland offers a thoughtful example of how states and cities, in partnership with local businesses, could organize career and technical education (CTE).

In a JFF paper, Hoffman says, “The workplace is an excellent place for young people to develop the range of academic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities that are referred to, collectively, as ‘deeper learning.’” She adds, “The Swiss model amounts to a truly deep learning experience, showing that the classroom and the workplace can complement each other in powerful ways, providing young people with much-needed opportunities to ease into the workforce and transition into adulthood, while also preparing them to go on to higher education.”

Hoffman notes Linked Learning in California as a sign of stateside progress. It “aspires to enroll every California high school student in a career/academic interdisciplinary curriculum with pathways into postsecondary education.”

JFF supports the 11 state members of the Pathways to Prosperity Network which are doing significant work to create career pathways in grades nine to 14 (see recent update). States agree to:

  • Develop and implement comprehensive systems for career information, advising, and exposure in programs starting in middle school.
  • Gain commitment from employers, particularly in high growth sectors, to engage with educators to build a sequence of work-based learning experiences for young people in their regions and states, and to provide input and feedback on curricula and pathways development and improvement.
  • Provide opportunities for students who would traditionally not be college bound to earn at least 12 college credits while in high school and start on a career pathway
  • Develop and strengthen intermediary organizations that connect employers, high schools, and community colleges, and aggregate and make available work-based learning opportunities.
  • Create and maintain a cross-sector (executive, legislative, employer) state leadership team to guide and champion this work and build public will backed by effective policies and strategies for expansion.

JFF calls for, “Much more attention to building career pathways in high-growth, high-demand occupational fields that span high school and community or technical college preparation and can provide young people with skills and credentials valued in the labor market.”

  For more on career readiness, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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