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Switzerland has long been considered “the Gold Standard” career pathways globally. In this country, more than two-thirds of students pursue career-focused, paid apprenticeship programs. These apprenticeships are available to students once they reach the end of common school at age 15, and last 3-4 years. Generally, students work three or four days a week and attend school one or two days a week. Experienced mentors, masters of their craft who are trained in pedagogy, supervise the apprentices at the workplace.

With help from local career guidance centers, students choose an area of focus and apply for positions. Switzerland’s systems once traditionally focused on preparing young people for trades, but recently expanded options to focus more on innovative, high-growth areas: sectors such as IT, insurance, health and social care, banking, and pre-engineering. Students can also specialize based on their interests. The commercial sector, for example, includes over 20 areas of specialization including banking, retail, and public administration.

Students learn on the job and are expected to do the real work of the company. They take on more responsibility as they progress in their internship, and their apprenticeship wages increase over time. At the completion of the apprenticeship, students sit for final exams and complete an individual practical project at the workplace that is presented to a panel of employers and teachers for a grade.

Switzerland Apprentice

Imagine a teenager advising a hedge fund client, turning out parts on a multimillion dollar machine, or running a retail phone store. It may sound like a teenager’s daydream, but…[Swiss] teens take on responsibilities like these throughout their apprenticeships.

—NCEE, The Gold Standard, p. 2

If successful, they earn a vocational diploma that is recognized across the country as a ticket to both the workforce as higher education. A growing number apprentices pursue an applied academic diploma as well. This academic diploma entitles them direct admission to a University of Applied Sciences (UAS), where they can earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Students with a vocational diploma can also sit for a qualifying exam for the traditional university system.

The Swiss system is overseen and funded by three partners who share responsibility. The federal government whose role is to regulate and steer the system. The 26 cantons, which like U.S. states are responsible for primary and secondary education, support and oversee the school-based component. But employers and their industry sector organizations are the real drivers of the pathways. National industry sector associations determine content requirements to ensure that skills are broad, applicable, and relevant. They take the lead in determining when new career programs need to be developed or when current programs should be phased out. And they assure there are adequate apprenticeships to match demand.

Employers are committed to the system as they view it as an investment in their future workforce. In fact, many company CEOs started as apprentices themselves. About 30 percent of Swiss companies host apprentices and many more hire graduating apprenticeships on for full-time positions. Some smaller companies create networks to host apprentices and offer inter-company training classes. Industry partners report that the benefits they receive from hosting apprentices far outweigh the salary costs.

For more information, see The Gold Standard: Switzerland’s Vocational and Training System.


Singapore offers the authentic career connected learning akin to the Swiss system – but without the significant apprenticeship infrastructure the Swiss model requires. It does so through a world-renowned work-based learning institute – the Institute for Technical Education (ITE) — and a set of world-class polytechnic institutions. About 25 percent of students study at the ITE and 40 percent go to the polytechnics after secondary school.

The ITE admits students after they complete secondary school at age 16. It offers 14 two and three-year technical education initial certificate programs, spread across seven high-growth areas: Applied and Health Sciences, Business Services, Design and Media, Electronics and ICT, Engineering, and Hospitality. Each of these areas offers career connected learning in authentic working environments on ITE’s campus.

Singapore Apprentice

Young people training for work in retail train in a real coffee shop that has real customers. Auto mechanics train on new Mercedes and Nissan vehicles and on special cutaway engines provided by those firms, along with the specialized tools the mechanics-in-training need to work on those cars. Students at the Aerospace hub work on a Boeing airplane.

—NCEE, The Phoenix, p. 26

Employers are deeply involved in ITE program design, provide state-of-the-art equipment to simulate work settings, and help assess students’ mastery of skills when they complete the programs. The typical curriculum includes foundational skills; core modules; and elective modules to allow for personalization. ITE requires all students to participate in three and six-month internships. The length of the industry attachments has been extended as Singapore has tried to build a culture of apprenticeship within its companies and businesses. ITE also offers options to earn initial and advanced certifications and diplomas through traineeships and work/study modes, which take place entirely at a workplace.

Polytechnics offer an even broader array of diploma programs as well as a range of upskilling courses and certificates for current workers, with work attachments of six weeks to six months embedded in each program and work/study modes of learning. The polytechnic institutions offer over 100 diploma programs and also offers work/study options to earn them.

Students who graduate with certifications and diplomas can enter the workforce directly or go on for advanced technical training in the polytechnic institutions or Singapore’s universities. Up to 40 percent of graduates of vocational education pursue degrees. In many cases, they transfer enough credits to complete a bachelor’s degree in two years. In addition to teacher training, ITE and polytechnic instructors have professional qualifications and work experience in their industry area and are required to do work externships on a regular basis.

The Singapore career development system is tightly coordinated by the government. The Ministry of Manpower works with economic agencies and industry groups to identify critical workforce skill needs. Program offerings are regularly updated, and the number of slots available in each are adjusted to reflect expected demand. For the past decade, Singapore has been building an integrated lifelong learning education system – SkillsFuture — to respond to evolving industry needs. Skills Future provides education credits to all Singaporeans age 25 and older to update their skills in designated areas, with additional credits and opportunities for mid-career workers.

For more information, see The Phoenix: Vocational Education and Training in Singapore.


Finland offers an example of an emerging system that has made great strides in recent years. In this Nordic country, about 50 percent of students chose to focus on career pathways after they complete basic school at age 16. The system a structured as a three-year full time program that is offered alongside, and shares a common academic foundation with, an academic upper secondary school program. Graduates can apply to Finland’s universities of applied sciences and research universities alongside graduates of the academic program although vocational program graduates often take additional courses so they can succeed on the upper secondary exams which are used for university admission.

Finland’s system provides specialized education in over 40 different industry areas, all in high-growth sectors. The Finnish Ministry of Education has an Anticipation Unit to monitor the economy and workforce needs and continually update the program areas and skill requirements.

In 2017, Finland made the system modular and competency-based. Students are required to master foundational modules, but all students have a personal plan, with flexible, personalized, and stackable modules as well. The 2017 reforms also made career-connected learning available in varied learning environments, including online, in school and in workplaces, and allowed students flexibility to gain competences in any combination of these settings.

Finland Apprentice

At Omnia Vocational School in Espoo, Finland, each program is a school-based business. Fashion design students research the latest fashion trends, sketch chic dresses and jumpers, stitch together fabrics and produce elegant creations using state-of-the-art textile equipment. Some are used for major opera productions for the City Opera. Aspiring builders construct their own full-sized cabins from the ground up, and sell them to families in the city in search of summer homes.

—Description from NCEE visit, 2020

Finland has a three-tier structure of competency-based qualifications (initial, further and specialized) that is common to secondary vocational education, continuing vocational education, apprenticeship training, and labor market training for adults. These national certifications can be earned upon demonstration of proficiency, regardless of a student’s enrollment in a course. The national government oversees the skills qualifications system, in partnership with employers. Employers are at the table when learning and economic needs are identified nationally and when programs are developed locally.

For more information, see NCEE’s profile of Finland’s education system.