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Miki Aristorenas
by Miki Aristorenas

This month, we take a more granular look at Vocational Education and Training (VET) by examining two programs from two of the world’s best VET systems and one model of excellence in the United States in hopes that U.S. policymakers can learn from these programs and adapt those lessons for use in the U.S. context.

Center for Young Professionals— Switzerland

Switzerland has one of the strongest VET systems in Europe. Serving 70 percent of youth, it is the country’s mainstream secondary program and prepares students for a range of occupations from high-tech, human service and health-related jobs to traditional trades and crafts. The system receives strong support from Swiss employers who attribute the strength of the Swiss economy—which enjoys nearly full employment and a high standard of living— to the quality of the VET system.

After compulsory education, students in Switzerland choose between two options for upper secondary school: academic or vocational. The majority of students choosing the vocational route enter a three to four-year apprenticeship which leads to a Federal VET Diploma. The commercial sector is the most popular industry choice for VET students which includes 21 areas of specialization including banking. Industry sector organizations that sponsor training companies are common places for students to find apprenticeships. One such organization is Switzerland’s Center for Young Professionals (CYP).

CYP was founded in 2003 by five large banks and is funded by the Association of the Swiss Banking Industry. CYP partners with the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) to develop qualifications and assessments for the industry, establish curriculum, and provide through their affiliated training companies course work during the three or four-year upper secondary school education. Students 16-19 years old come to CYP, a short tram ride away from Zurich, for their initial orientation and periodically during their apprenticeship years for short courses.

While in the program, these students study languages, math, theory, and history, and work six-month rotations at a bank where they learn by doing and test theory in practice. With 27 member banks, CYP orients apprentices to the standards and practices of the entire banking industry.

This VET apprenticeship system is central to the Swiss economy today. Lukas Gaewiler, CEO of UBS Switzerland, who started as an apprentice himself, reports that 68 percent of UBS’ 22,000 employees in Switzerland took the apprenticeship route.

Institute of Technical Education— Singapore

In contrast to Europe’s long-standing apprenticeship system, Singapore’s system, which has been led by the government at each step of its evolution, began only recently with aggressive VET investments as a keystone of the country’s economic development strategy following its post-World War II founding.

Singapore’s VET system, like Switzerland’s, is a very popular route for students. After four to five years of lower secondary school, students at the age of 16 or 17 sit for their General Certificate of Education after which, about 65 percent pursue some form of VET. Twenty-five percent of all upper secondary students choose to attend the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) while the rest of students pursuing vocational education—40 percent of all lower secondary graduates—enroll in one of the five polytechnics in Singapore.

ITE students can obtain a two-year National ITE qualification (Nitec) or a Master Nitec which includes an additional three years of relevant work experience in partnership with participating employers. As of January 2013, there were 102 programs at ITE ranging from Machine Technology in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in Germany to the Culinary Arts in collaboration with the Institut Paul Bocuse of France.

Once admitted to ITE, students cannot simply enter any program of their choosing. The system is relentlessly meritocratic with options given to students based on how well that student has performed thus far. The number of slots available in each ITE program is not a function of student demand but determined by the National Manpower Council, which includes participants from key government agencies such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The National Manpower Council determines this number by the projected number of positions that will be available in that occupation and tries to shape that pattern by being able to offer highly-qualified candidates in areas where it would like Singapore to have a strong industrial presence.

While performance on exams is the basis for selection for most ITE programs, the government has worked hard to provide specialized support to enable struggling students to meet the same standards as their peers. This meritocratic selection and determination to help all learners succeed drives achievement for every major group of citizens in Singapore.

Although Switzerland is commonly referred to as the gold standard for VET, Singapore has come a long way. On average, 90 percent of ITE graduates receive job offers within six months of graduating and ITE has been recognized as a model program in improving Vocational and Technical Education by the OECD and was the worldwide winner of the IBM Innovation Award in Transforming Government from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Delaware Pathways Program— United States

In 2014, Governor Jack Markell of the state of Delaware, along with leaders from K-12, higher education, and business and community organizations, decided to become a part of the Pathways to Prosperity Network as part of an effort to increase the postsecondary attainment rate in the state and improve employment prospects for its high school graduates. The Network is an initiative of Jobs for the Future, a non-profit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States, that seeks to ensure more young people complete high school and attain post-secondary credentials of value in the labor market.

State leadership dubbed the effort Delaware Pathways and created structures in which students as early as middle school are able to learn and explore career options. In high school, students then take courses related to careers and, concurrently, enroll in institutions of higher education for a two or three-year career-related program of study. Before their senior year, students in the program participate in paid internships during the summer months for about 240 hours, or six 40-hour work weeks, at their chosen worksite and ultimately graduate with a high school diploma, six to 15 college credits, an industry-recognized credential, and work experience.

Work-based learning, a component essential in both Switzerland’s CYP and Singapore’s ITE Master Nitec qualification, is key to the Delaware Pathways initiative, enabling students to apply their knowledge and skills in actual worksites and start working effectively for companies on day one of their working life.

The program has grown from 27 participants to 6000 participants over the course of three years and is projected to reach its target of 50 percent of the state’s high school students by 2019.  While the Pathways initiative is providing important experiences and skill development for youth, leaders recognize that it will be more effective in meeting the state’s overall employment needs if better integrated into the state’s broader system for workforce development. However, with the departure of Governor Markell—who championed the creation of Pathways—and funding questions, the program faces some uncertainty going forward.

While the Delaware Pathway program and others like it are models of excellence, the United States lacks any kind of cohesive VET system in the country as a whole, particularly one on par with world-class systems like those in Switzerland and Singapore. Singapore and Switzerland both show the power of a VET system that focuses on equipping students with state of the art industry skills in high demand fields informed by industry perspectives and aligned with the workforce needs of the jurisdiction.

Singapore spent the past several decades building VET as the backbone of its economic development strategy and Switzerland has worked hard over the past 20 years to modernize its VET system, maintaining its position as a world economic leader. The United States has much catching up to do, and much to learn from both systems, but the enormous growth of Delaware’s program proves real change and success are possible for states around the country and systems around the world now looking to build VET systems of their own.

More information on Swiss and Singaporean VET systems can be found in the following CIEB reports from the NCEE publications page:

Gold Standard: The Swiss Vocational Educational and Training System
The Phoenix: Vocational Education and Training in Singapore

More information on the Delaware Pathway Program can be found here: The Role of Strategic Partnerships in Scaling Delaware Pathways