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.

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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.”

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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