Global Perspectives: Lessons from Switzerland’s VET System

By Betsy Brown Ruzzi
I recently sat down with Nancy Hoffman, Vice President and Senior Advisor at Jobs for the Future, and Bob Schwartz, Francis Keppel Professor of Practice in Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to discuss what they have learned from their recent visits to countries with high performing vocational and technical education systems (VET).  This excerpt of their longer video interview focuses particularly on what they have learned in Switzerland, a world-leader in ensuring the majority of young people in that country have a smooth transition from school to work.  A full transcript of this video follows.

Betsy Brown Ruzzi: Among all the country VET systems you have looked at, why is Switzerland notable?

Bob Schwartz: Of the systems I’ve looked at, the Swiss system to my mind actually has the most to teach the U.S.  This is not to say that it’s the best in the world, but one advantage from the U.S. perspective of looking at Switzerland is its labor market is relatively unregulated like ours.  What I’ve been most struck by is not only the deep engagement of employers which is very powerful and very prevalent, the employers play a major role not only in designing the specifications for what it is that young people need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in their particular sector, but the employers band together, they work collaboratively through sectoral organizations.

Unlike Germany and many other countries, there are no governmental subsidies for employers.  Employers are at the table because they really do understand that this is in their long-term economic self-interest.  It’s a federal system which is useful for us because again [there is] a lot to learn in terms of a kind of a power sharing if you want to call it that.  The term that you run into all across Europe in these systems is social partnerships.  These programs are not seen exclusively as governmental programs, they really are seen as public private partnerships.  Employer organizations, employee organizations as well as employers have a seat at the table and they kind of work through the challenges and problems to the point where all the participants in a sense see why it’s in their interest to play.

I’d say three things about the Swiss system in terms of outcomes.  It’s a mainstream system, which is very, very impressive to me.  Two-thirds of young people in Switzerland by the age of 16 are in this system.  Nearly all of them are in these programs that combine learning at the workplace and learning in a classroom.  If you look at youth unemployment rates internationally, Switzerland has the very lowest youth unemployment rate in the developed world.

Only Singapore is even in the same category really.  When we were last there in March we were told it was now under five percent.  But the U.S., the UK, France are all in the 18 to 20 percent range and of course [in] the southern European countries, some are closer to 50 percent. The other thing that’s striking is if you look at the international measures of the economic effectiveness of countries, whether it’s the world economic forum rankings or the innovation rankings, Switzerland ranks always in the top three both on innovation and on overall economic performance.  When you talk to Swiss leaders and ask how can this be, you have such a small fraction of your young people going through the university system, the Swiss will say, “No, no, it’s because we really invest in preparing folks who are at the front lines and we look to our kind of everyday workers to provide a lot of the innovation that really spurs the economy.”

BBR: Can you describe how students learn in Switzerland?

Nancy Hoffman: First of all I think it’s important to know that young people are in three places every week, at a school, at a workplace and at a sectoral or regional organization that does some aspect of the training.  So first of all they have to get themselves up and organized into the right place every day.  When they’re in the workplace it depends obviously on what the workplace is.

Germany tends to use more simulated workshops in a factory.  So, in other words, taking tools and machines that aren’t used anymore, setting them aside and having students work there.  In Switzerland the productivity comes by challenging young people immediately.  So if you go into a factory-we visited a factory that makes the machines that make all sorts of cardboard packing boxes-you see somebody who’s at a first or second year apprenticeship actually working at a computer doing some learning in the classroom of the factory, but also working at a machine where he or she has substantial responsibilities.

Similarly in the banking industry, we saw sixteen-year-olds in suits and little round glasses all sitting next to their hedge fund managers and actually handling aspects of accounts.  You go to Swiss.com which is the biggest telephone Internet provider in Switzerland and there they have an extremely innovative program where students can choose to work on any project that any employer posts on a bulletin board.  So they simply join a team and learn the competencies as they go along.  We saw a young man in a totally professional setting who was working on programming for trains with a very sophisticated group.  So they are essentially treated like normal employees.

Most of the teaching goes on in the workplace.  The principle is anything that can be taught in the workplace should be taught there.  So mathematics for cooks for example is taught in the workplace.  And there is a requirement that trainers in the workplace be certified which is quite unusual.  Not many countries actually require a training course for vocational trainers in a company.  So there is a knowledge about pedagogy, about youth development and about how to work with sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds that is part of the government’s educational responsibility and an obligation of engaged employers to take part.

BS: Most companies in Switzerland are small and medium sized companies and they take relatively small numbers of people.  In Credit Suisse, there are 750 young professionals as they call them, 16- to 18-year-olds.  These can be between 10 and 15 percent of the workforce.  One of the things that’s really striking is the degree of informal coaching and mentoring and support that young people get.

One thing that is absolutely national is the qualification system.  So at the end of the day a young person who completes a program has a qualification, a certificate if you will that has currency all across the country and I think increasingly will have currency all over Europe.  If I can say parenthetically, just last week Volkswagen, which operates a 3,000-person plant in Chattanooga proudly announced the completion of a first apprenticeship program in automotive mechatronics for 25 young people.  They do this in partnership with a regional community college there.  These people now have a qualification that is worldwide in value and that’s very much the kind of orientation of these systems.

BBR: What is the payoff for employers to participate in VET in Switzerland?

BS: There are these very credible, cost benefit studies that employers know about which show that in these three-year programs, the gains in productivity for the company more than offset the costs of apprentice wages and the associated training costs.  Because Switzerland is an expensive country and because wages are quite high, there’s a pretty substantial gap between the kind of entry-level wage you can get as a journeyman and the wages that apprentices get.  That’s one of the reasons that the system actually works.

What’s really striking is these young people, by the third year, are getting about $1,000 a month.  You can be seventeen- and eighteen-years-old going to school and going to work and earning more than pocket change.  This is a pretty attractive deal to be earning as you’re learning virtually from day one.  Once you complete, you are pretty quickly on a ladder to a middle class wage.

BBR: What types of qualifications are offered in Switzerland and other high-performing VET countries?

NH: The final thing I would say about Finland and Switzerland and a number of other strong countries is they’ve modernized their vocational education systems.  So while they teach construction and they teach carpentry and they teach the old trades, the system is really known as the place you go if you want any kind of high tech skills.  If you want to be an engineer, if you want to work in IT, if you want to learn graphic design, if you want to be a nurse, if you want to be a childcare teacher, you go to the vocational system.  These strong systems have escaped the stigma of this is only the place you go where you work with your hands and get into a job that doesn’t have a career ladder.

BS: The first things the Swiss tell you proudly about their system is there are no dead ends.  They have redesigned their systems so that the opportunities go back and forth.  They built a university system on the vocational side called the University of Applied Sciences.  At Credit Suisse, for example, forty percent of the kids who were doing their apprenticeships were at the same time completing the work for what’s called a professional baccalaureate.  Americans often have the stereotype that these are systems that make early decisions about kids and careers and then you’re stuck there forever.  These systems have learned to be much more fluid and open and permeable than they were historically.

BBR: What are the commonalities across the high-performing VET systems you have studied?

NH: There are a number of common threads across the high performing vocational systems.  First of all there’s the tripartite aspect of the arrangements that are made that underlie the design of the schooling.  So the tripartite arrangement is government, educators and social partners, which include labor unions.

The second thing I would say and this is I think extremely important for Americans to hear, they believe that 16-year-olds are not all lying in bed listening to rock music and waiting for the next phone call.  They actually believe that 16-year-olds, if given responsibility and support can behave like young professionals.  The third thing that I would say they have in common is that they understand that applied learning is a more engaging way of learning for almost everyone.  So the pedagogy moves back and forth between theory and practice.

BS: The very strongest systems are mainstream systems, that is, they serve a broad range of kids so they’re not seen as systems for kids who can’t do academic work or for the weakest kids academically.  And that’s connected also to the facts that because they prepare kids for a much broader range of occupations than we typically think of, white-collar as well as blue-collar, high tech as well as low tech, one of the consequences of putting those two things together is these are systems that have much broader political support and public support.

BBR: What advice would you give U.S. policymakers on building a successful VET system?

NH: Given that Perkins is the money that funds vocational education, career and technical education, as it’s called in the United States, I would not distribute it by formula.  I would use it as a way to announce my views of what vocational education ought to be.  The second thing I think I would do is go to the Business Roundtable or the state chamber of commerce and begin to impress upon them what the youth unemployment rates look like in our states and how this is going to be not just a political problem, but a social problem that is increasing inequality.  And I would say we can’t move forward with our economic competitiveness in this state unless you help me on a youth agenda and that means providing a range of workplace experiences for young people.

The third thing I would advise is once again to lean on the public school system to do much more by way of helping young people understand the world of work.  But it can’t be just plunking a kid in front of a computer and saying take an inventory.  It has to be a much more active learning that really depends on the student becoming an agent in her or his own exploration.

BS: On this question of what governors can do.  Use your bully pulpit to help people understand that the economy has really changed.  [Start} mobilizing employers, listening to them, finding out what their needs are, but basically saying to them, “You need to step up.  You need to make your voices heard.  You need to take the initiative, not wait for the education community to reach out to you and say will you help us.  You need to kind of assert your own long-term self interest here.”  And then governors need to be able to support that.