Who Needs College? The Swiss Opt for Vocational School

The majority of Switzerland’s students opt for vocational training instead of college—and that does not mean the country is dumbing down

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Ennio Leanza / Keystone

An apprentice miller with a specialization in animal food at the "Kunz Kunath Fors AG" concentrated feed company in Burgdorf in the canton of Berne, Switzerland, on June 13, 2012

As young Americans contemplate the immense cost (and considerable indebtedness) involved in a college education, it may be worthwhile to consider the options available to the Swiss—and whether they are worth importing into the U.S. In Switzerland, even though university education is free, the vast majority of students opt for a vocational training instead.

Take Jonathan Bove. This spring, after he completed his three-year business training at an insurance company, the 19-year-old was hired by a telecommunications firm; his job as a customer care representative offers a starting salary of $52,000 a year, a generous annual bonus, and a four-week paid vacation – no small potatoes for the teenager who is still living at home and has no plans to move out. “The idea of university never appealed to me,” he says. “The vocational training is more hands-on and the path to a good job is shorter.”

Bove’s situation may be enviable to teens in the United States, but it is not unusual in Switzerland. About two-thirds of 15 and 16 year olds who finish nine years of obligatory schooling choose to continue their education through Vocational Education and Training (VET), a system that churns out skilled workers who are the backbone of the country’s thriving economy.

(MORE: Lessons from the Swiss Apprenticeships)

Youngsters like Bove, who opt for the vocational education, follow a dual-track approach combining practical training at a host company with a part-time classroom instruction at a VET school. Trade organizations determine skills that are most in demand in the labor market,ensuring that apprentices will be adequately trained for jobs in their fields.

So far, this approach has been very successful: less than 3% of Switzerland’s young people are unemployed, the lowest rate among 30 industrialized countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (As a comparison, that rate is over 12% in the U.S and 22% in European Union nations).

Currently, approximately 58,000 Swiss companies provide VET program to roughly 80,000 apprentices – impressive numbers in a country of only 8 million people. They offer training in commercial, retail, healthcare, technology, and other fields. “Businesses regard training of young people as their social responsibility,” says Franziska Schwarz, Vice Director of the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology (OPET), which oversees the country’s vocational programs.

Collectively, participating companies invest $5.4 billion into three-year VET programs to cover the cost of apprentices’ salaries, training materials, and instructors. However,  Schwarz points out that this figure is outweighed by the “productive output” generated by apprentices, which amounts to $5.8 billion, netting a profit for businesses of over $400million.

Apprentices too are well compensated at the end of their training cycles. An average starting salary for a VET graduate in the commercial sector is about $50,000 a year, though they can expect their earnings to grow. And if they choose to pursue post-VET education in higher technical or commercial schools, they can earn close to $100,000, according to OPET.

Even though it’s not as demanding as a university curriculum  “apprenticeship is not just education for dummies,” says Stefan Wolter, head of the Centre for Research in Economics of Education atBern University. “It attracts the most talented students, so when companies hire former apprentices, they know they are getting qualified employees.”

(MORE: Learning That Works)

The country consistently scores at the top of world education rankings, prompting the Swiss government to “export” its apprenticeship model. So far, pilot projects are underway in Britain and India, with expansion planned to more countries, including the United States.

But would this kind of program work in the U.S, where college has traditionally been seen as practically the only way to a high-income career? “There have been many attempts to change our college-based system, and all of them failed,” says Dr. Anthony Carnavale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a nonprofit research and policy institute. “And while a small percentage of American employers offer industry training and certificates, it’s a long way from a widespread or coherent system.”

One of the reasons a Swiss-like scheme wouldn’t fly in the U.S., Carnevale says, “is that the idea of ‘sorting’ high school kids into different tracks, with some going to college and others into vocational programs, is unacceptable.” He also notes that the VET program such as it exists in Switzerland “would require a higher degree of market and business regulations, which would be overwhelmingly rejected in America.” It seems that even with all the problems plaguing higher education, Americans are not ready to give the VET program an old college try.

MORE: The Future of Vocational Education

26 comments
Pieter Perrett
Pieter Perrett

An important point to make about the Swiss system is also the fact that there is significant permeability between the different educational paths. It is very easy to move from the vocational training path to the professional training or academic path.

The Swiss also have Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) which are proven examples of theory and practice working together, thus facilitating effective knowledge transfer.

Another interesting fact about Swss lifelong learning is that many of the population (80% in recent government research) participates in continuing education which is also offered by the renowned UAS.

See http://www.news.admin.ch/messa...

it's not only watches and chocolate that contribute to Swiss excellence.

cmngineer
cmngineer

I've been saying for years now that the US needs to re-evaluate the way it looks at vocational training. It would decrease the number of students going to 4-year colleges, thus decreasing university cost, and it would, as it did in Switzerland, leave far fewer young people unemployed (not to mention, employed AND without a mortgage's worth of debt before they can legally drink)

Pintete
Pintete

The Swiss and German systems of Vocational Training are very useful. Of course, those Nations are not rich just because their VTE programs. But other Countries should follow. University is not the only way to be skilled. In fact, many times it is a system not to be skilled for the labour market.

Talendria
Talendria

Great article!  It occurred to me after I graduated from university with a debt that would take 10 years to pay off that I didn't have any actual skills.  I couldn't build anything.  I couldn't fix anything.  It seems silly to spend four years and a truckload of money on a piece of paper.  I'd like to see more industries offer apprenticeships.

S P Dudley
S P Dudley

Carnevale says, “is that the idea of ‘sorting’ high school kids into

different tracks, with some going to college and others into vocational

programs, is unacceptable.”

Except that this already happens, as many US high schools already maintain "two-track" academic programs that include an "elite" set of classes for college-bound higher achievers. Schools may call these "honors," "AP," or "gifted" but the function is the same: herding the smart kids into one set of well-financed courses that make the school look good by boosting their scores.

Giving the "non-elite" a way to a decent education via apprenticeship like the Swiss do would be a lot more fair than just running them like cattle through the US school system and then pushing them to go to any college, regardless of suitability, afterwards. 

 

New Class Traitor
New Class Traitor

"College for all" (including those with below-average intelligence) is to education as printing money is to fighting poverty, and as puppy mills are to responsible dog breeding. 

I know that, when I interview a recent "precious snowflake studies" graduate or English major, I can no longer assume that this person can even read or write at "college" level, or has even basic numeracy, let alone that this person has actual knowledge beyond parroting cliches.

But of course, for the college administrators who need to feed bureaucratic empires and pet buildings, STEM students are too expensive and too likely to drop out when actual standards are set. 

The Swiss (and the Germans) have the right idea here.

catorenasci
catorenasci

Neither the article nor any commentator has addressed the real reason vocational-education and apprenticeship training programs do not have widespread appeal in the US.

It's really about social class and the perception in this country that one cannot be a socially considered a member of the real middle class, to which most people aspire for their children, without a traditional college degree.  The college degree socially separates those who are essentially working class, whether traditional blue collar or 'white collar' administrative, service and retail jobs below the upper managerial levels, from the professional and upper managerial class, (and, of course, from the upper class).

To enter a vocational training program is broadly seen socially as an admission one is not, and will never become, a member of the upper middle class. It limits ones social prospects, ones marriage prospects (note, per Murray's new book, the college graduates are increasingly marrying each other, even more so for graduates of elite colleges and universities).

Sabinal
Sabinal

 

I am sick and tired of white-gloved esconced professionals who are well paid and tenured telling students not to go to college. That is more prevalent than professors telling them to go to college. We encourage our students to do what's best for them, not for us...we've been there as students.

 

 And I can guarantee those professionals will be pushing their own children to go to college: trade school is always for "other people."

 

This is also more of an conservative ideological push than it is over the quality of our kids' futures. I can guarantee that if more colleges pushed for Reagan worship and supply side econcomics I can gurantee the issue over college vs vocab would dissapear.

 

You want to make life easier for your kids and the future? Why don't you start yelling at businesses to reduce their requirement of a college education for the most basic of jobs in the first place? This debate would not be happening if accrediation upcreep (as well as the inhouse outsourcing of US jobs through HB1 visas) was reduced if not gone altogether.

 

 

 

Sabinal
Sabinal

I am sick and tired of white-gloved esconced professionals who are well paid and tenured telling students not to go to college. That is more prevalent than professors telling them to go to college. We encourage our students to do what's best for them, not for us...we've been there as students.

 

 And I can guarantee those professionals will be pushing their own children to go to college: trade school is always for "other people."

 

This is also more of an conservative ideological push than it is over the quality of our kids' futures. I can guarantee that if more colleges pushed for Reagan worship and supply side econcomics I can gurantee the issue over college vs vocab would dissapear.

 

You want to make life easier for your kids and the future? Why don't you start yelling at businesses to reduce their requirement of a college education for the most basic of jobs in the first place? This debate would not be happening if accrediation upcreep (as well as the inhouse outsourcing of US jobs through HB1 visas) was reduced if not gone altogether.

 

 

 

advosnob
advosnob

NYS is addicted to its high-stakes high school Regents diploma and refuses to offer different types of diplomas for kids who could benefit from vocational diplomas/certificates.  The business community a/k/a employers have to be included and perhaps lead a change in the US.

chicagoxile
chicagoxile

Germany has a similar system of apprenticeship and specialization, with corresponding low unemployment rate (compared to the rest of the Eurozone).

equal_rights_for_all1
equal_rights_for_all1

America's education system is just  a jobs program to employ teachers. Just crank as many kids through to college as you can to keep those teachers employed until their pensions kick in.

 Toss in affirmative action where kids are pushed to go to schools beyond their capabilities often to fail or drop out. When they could have actually gotten a degree at a less prestigious school. But it sure makes the liberals feel good to have the proper balance of skin colors. Not too many brown skins though. Just a token amount that the "experts" declare reasonable.

Heaven forbid we look to the needs of  the students, society and business for future workers when professors of gender studies need to fill classroom seats.

Russell A
Russell A

So obvious only professional educators could fail to understand this.

Wayne Palmer
Wayne Palmer

Its NOT that this sort of system wouldn't work in the US. Such programs already do exist between votech schools and businesses, BUT, they are hindered by a mass prejudice that is mostly created by tenured college professors who dominate so many fields and who have the ear thru teachers and the media - literally from grade school to grave - that one MUST have a 4 year degree to be civilized.

They insist that such education can only be produced by their enlightened instructions ... a great deal of which wraps around insuring that the students believe that the professors are the highest evolved persons on the planet and that America sucks.

A Smith
A Smith

Sounds like a great idea. 

But the demands--time, math and thinking skills, preparedness--for these vocational schools is still likely too much for the tattoo-and- backward-baseball-cap youth of America.

Loralei Sturkie
Loralei Sturkie

There are good vocational schools here in the US that have great track records, too.  www.guardian.edu is an Idaho school specializing in hands-on allied health education for EMTs, paramedics, and personal trainers.  Most students graduate with no debt and have earned back their tuition cost in weeks.

wink5106
wink5106

Who says you have to sort kids? Give the parents and kids a choice of VET or college after their Sophomore year.

danasta
danasta

You left out the major underpinnings of the story. The Swiss economy is so great because Switzerland serves as an international money-laundering tax-haven that sucks up funds, taxes those banks, and provides a very high living standard for citizens. It is nearly impossible to become a Swiss citizen for these reasons. We're talking three generations of families can't get these perks. For ordinary workers in low-paying jobs, there is no possibility of hopping aboard this gravy train. Trust me, if 19 year olds could find $52,000 jobs in America simply by studying insurance for 2 years, there would be a massive move toward it.

Go to a Pizza Hut in Switzerland. $20 a slice. Being the world's favorite place to stash dough will create such wacked economies.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@S P Dudley  I agree.  I've never understood why so many people (read: parents and politicians) refuse to accept that by the time you reach 9th grade, it's usually pretty obvious who's going to go on to college and who won't, or will only go to community college.  I mean, you can ask the students themselves and they can point out who belongs in which group!  

Surely we can do better than this.  Have all kids go to school uniformly til 16.  That's enough of a general background for everyone.  Then let them decide what they want to focus on for life.  That's only two years earlier than we already make them do that -- but it's two critical years where they can either learn things of use to them, or NOT learn things they have no interest in. 

There's nothing wrong with wanting to work with your hands, or to work with people.  By the time you're 16, people know if they want to do these things, or if they want college.  Let them pick!

Talendria
Talendria

I'm not sure why people play into that stereotype.  Neither my dad nor my husband went to college, and they both rose to the top of their white-collar professions.

catorenasci
catorenasci

 You are correct in capturing the essential dynamic of professionals who wouldn't dream of not sending their kids to the most elite college or university they could get into being quick to preach the virtue of vocational education.

However, the simple fact is that not more than 25-30% of high school graduates have the cognitive ability to do well in a rigorous college program - say what was expected of elite college or university undergraduates in 1960.  Are those students better off in a solid vocational program geared to their abilities and the needs of the labor market, or are they better off in a second or third rate college or university taking a watered down liberal arts or business course? I'm not sure, but given the increasingly high cost of college, the case for college - which is still a very strong lexically ordered social class indicator - is not as strong economically as once it was.

I think you are mistaken to consider this a 'conservative push' in any way.

Businesses began requiring a college degree as a gateway sorting tool in the 1970s after civil rights litigation essentially eliminated the use of any sort of job testing requirements which related to general education, literacy and knowledge, because the tests were claimed to be discriminatory.  In addition, it takes a certain amount of perseverance, at least, to obtain even the most watered down BA.  Those who hold such a degree can at least be presumed to know how to show up on time and behave reasonably.

If you permit businesses to test directly for the skills they want, they will no longer need to use the college degree as a proxy for basic literacy and numeracy.

Aixtek
Aixtek

 " mostly created by tenured college professors who dominate so many fields and who have the ear thru teachers and the media"

- You obviously don't know many tenured professors.

1) Tenured professors only dominate 1 field, that is being a tenured professor at a college or university. Nothing else.

2)

The majority of tenured professors know that their job is based on

publication and research - not teaching. Teaching is actually more of a

chore then anything to them and would much rather have a life without students - and therefor think students who only want

to make money should go to a technical institute rather then waste their

time at university.

3) As a student coming out of high school,

honestly, how many professors have you talked to in order to get advise

on your possible future career? ZERO, you talk to student counselors and

advisers, maybe you friends and family or possible a Dean of a university who's sole goal is to recruit.

4) The vast majority of

people who come out a 4 year bachelors program  at university know (or

at least have heard, and refuse to acknowledge) that a B.A is worthless.

Every mother, father and their dog nowadays has a B.A.

I

totally agree the system is flawed... and the intellect elite of our

society we know as Prof X are no better then the rest of us, but

seriously... trying to place all the blame at the feet of tenured

professors is laughable. 

As soon as we, as a society, actually ADMIT this, we'll all be better off.

Aixtek
Aixtek

" mostly created by tenured college professors who dominate so many fields and who have the ear thru teachers and the media"

- You obviously don't know many tenured professors.

1) Tenured professors only dominate 1 field, that is being a tenured professor at a college or university. Nothing else.

2)

The majority of tenured professors know that their job is based on

publication and research - not teaching. Teaching is actually more of a

chore then anything to them - and therefor think students who only want

to make money should go to a technical institute rather then waste their

time at university.

3) As a student coming out of high school,

honestly, how many professors have you talked to in order to get advise

on your possible future career? ZERO, you talk to student counselors and

advisers, maybe you friends and family.

4) The vast majority of

people who come out a 4 year bachelors program  at university know (or

at least have heard, and refuse to acknowledge) that a B.A is worthless.

Every mother, father and their dog nowadays has a B.A.

I

totally agree the system is flawed... and the intellect elite of our

society we know as Prof X are no better then the rest of us, but

seriously... trying to place all the blame at the feet of tenured

professors is laughable. 

As soon as we, as a society, actually ADMIT this, we'll all be better off. I blame my grandparents.

emery ann harris
emery ann harris

And how many American parents would voluntarily put their kids on the VET track?  

CatNews
CatNews

Don't know where you got  slice of pizza for$20, but that's what we pay for the whole one, plus drinks, right here in Switzerland.

And the line about money laundering is getting a bit old, not to mention inaccurate. Banking is not Switzerland's main industry, it is pharmaceuticals.

And even if you believe this crap about banks, what in the world do they have to do with the education system? 

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@emery ann harris  Quite a few, I suspect.  Most parents would be perfectly happy to see their child making $50,000/year doing something she likes and is good at, and not having to pay a zillion dollars in college bills to make it happen.  That's particularly true if the parent doesn't have a college degree herself, or does have one but is struggling to make ends meet anyhow.

You're right that some parents will stubbornly insist that THEIR child go on to college, even if it's not a good fit.  But at least this would give less-stupid parents and students a choice they don't have now.