Education Week - April 24, 2013 - (Page 17)
APRIL 24, 2013
ADVANCED PROFESSIONAL TRAINING
Federal PET Exams
Institutes of Technology
The Swiss take pride in their
system’s “permeability”; students
entering secondary education
can follow several pathways
to higher education, which
consists not only of university
study but also continued
vocational learning through
Professional Education Training,
or PET, a set of specialty
professional exams and courses.
Federal VET Certificate
SOURCE: Swiss Confederation,
Federal Office for Professional
Education and Technology
Federal VET Diploma
ADDITIONAL QUALIFICATIONS NEEDED
Swiss Academic, Career Paths Designed to Cross
By Stephen Sawchuk
Think about jobs for high school students in
the United States, and the images that come
to mind include ice cream scooping, dog-walking, and baby-sitting. In Switzerland, though,
it’s just as likely that students as young as
16 are donning suits and handling a client’s
bank account, or putting on safety goggles to
work side by side with an engineer designing
About two-thirds of Swiss youth pursue
vocational training as part of their secondary education, most of them through an
on-the-job apprenticeship. For three or four
days a week, they work at a host company
under trained staff members and receive a
wage. They spend the rest of their time at a
vocational school where they are taught the
theoretical underpinnings of their fields.
It is both a cultural tradition and a system
that Swiss officials credit for matching workforce needs and economic growth.
“It’s not devotion, it’s engagement. We feel
responsible for training our young people,”
said Rosemarie Savary, the head of the training division at the Vaudoise Insurance Group,
in Lausanne. The company plays host to 106
apprentices, about 8 percent of its staff.
Long overshadowed by the training system
of its German neighbor, the Swiss system of
vocational education and training, or vet, has
begun to attract U.S. policymakers. That’s not
only because of recent calls, from industry
groups up through the White House, to make
secondary education more relevant, but also
because the Swiss approach offers lessons on
how to overcome obstacles with which American states have struggled.
Among them: figuring out how to involve
businesses in planning work-based learning
experiences and making sure the vocational
track doesn’t close the doors of opportunity
for youths who change their minds about
their careers or later decide to go to college.
“We do not accept that young people
should run into a dead end,” said Christian
Wasserfallen, the president of the committee for science, education, and culture in the
lower house of the Swiss parliament speaking recently to a delegation of U.S. officials
at the Education Ministry’s central headquarters, in Berne.
The Swiss embrace of work-based learning
has deep roots. Laws regulating apprenticeships here began in the 1880s, and the Swiss
Constitution charges the federal government
and the country’s 26 cantons, or states, with
ensuring that the general and vocational
courses of study achieve “equal recognition”
Switzerland’s federal government plays
a limited role in education, with most functions, especially for compulsory education,
performed by the cantons. The central government’s main role is in setting standards
for diplomas and teacher training, and in
helping facilitate the vet system.
In one of the main contrasts between the
Swiss and U.S. secondary education systems,
though, businesses here play a far more integrated role. For each of the vet system’s more
than 230 recognized occupations, professional
associations outline the skills and objectives
apprentices need to master.
For their member companies, professional
associations also craft the curricula that
guide on-the-job training and the assessments that apprentices take halfway through
and at the end of their three- or four-year apprenticeships.
Accountability comes through a system in
which third-party examiners drawn from
host companies in each field audit the internship offered at each company to make
sure it is specific enough so that a candidate
comes away with skills that are concrete, yet
broad enough to be applicable to all employers within the industry.
A federal teacher-training organization,
meanwhile, ensures that company employees
who oversee apprentices learn pedagogical
While most of the training is work-based,
vet students also receive academic instruction in general culture and languages while
not working at their apprenticeships.
About 30 percent of Swiss businesses take
part in vet by hosting apprentices; economic
analyses suggest that, on average, participating firms reap a net benefit despite the costs.
Officials note, though, that the benefits of a
highly skilled talent pipeline take a while to
show up in any company’s bottom line.
“If you educate young people, you have to
invest, and the return on investment is perhaps not very soon,” said Marion Fürbeth,
the head of hr Young Talents in Zurich for
Credit Suisse. The bank employs more than
750 apprentices in the areas of commercial
banking and information technology.
There is evidence to suggest that the longterm investment pays off for the country as
Data from the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development, a group of
leading industrial countries that includes the
United States, show that youth unemployment in Switzerland in 2011 was among the
lowest of member countries, at 7.7 percent.
The average in oecd nations, as of 2011, was
16.2 percent. And only 10 percent of Swiss
students do not complete either a vocational
or academic path. By contrast, the national
high school dropout rate is estimated at 30
percent in the United States, and it is far
higher for students of color.
Swiss lawmakers have shown a willingness
to change the system, based on an analysis of
labor needs and a desire to make transitions
among the tracks more flexible. Amid an economic crisis in the mid-1990s, and concerns
that too few Swiss youths were attending
universities, the parliament in 1994 created
an option for students in vet to earn a professional baccalaureate—a degree roughly
equivalent to the high school diploma.
The credential allows vet students to enter
a university of applied sciences, without additional training. (See graphic, above.)
Young people here say they largely view
the bifurcated system as two ways of achieving the same goal: preparation for their careers. And some see distinct advantages to
pursuing vet rather than the general academic track.
“Nowadays, professional experience is
much more valuable even than five to 10
years ago,” said Nick Bänninger, a thirdyear apprentice at Zurcher Kantonalbank.
Mr. Bänninger began secondary schooling
in gymnasium—the Swiss equivalent of an
academic high school—but anticipating a
career in banking, later decided to change
As always, there are still areas that Swiss
officials identify for improvement. Some of
the work fields are highly competitive, as are
placements at banks like Credit Suisse; others appear to be less so. Different regional attitudes toward the system also persist, with
vet less popular in French-speaking cantons
than in German-speaking ones.
Nor has the system overcome a certain status divide among members of Swiss elites,
who sometimes prefer their children to go
to gymnasium rather than through vet. Research continues to fuel debates in the cantons about whether the two tracks truly offer
Finally, echoing complaints of some U.S.
leaders, some representatives of the professional associations say educators in the primary schools often are unfamiliar with vet
or suspicious about the role of business in the
“Most of the teachers have never been inside a factory,” said Robert Rudolph, the head
of education and innovation for the Swiss
Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Industries. “They discourage people from going
In 2011, member companies had problems
filling all open vet positions, and some applicants didn’t possess the requisite math skills,
Still, the lessons from Switzerland’s system
hit home for American policymakers.
For John D. Barge, the state schools superintendent in Georgia, the highlights of
the Swiss system include many options for
students and business support for education
that is programmatic, not merely financial.
“Businesses not only invest their financial
resources, they invest their time, by teaching
apprentices how to work,” said Mr. Barge,
whose state is working to provide career-exploration opportunities early in high school.
“They don’t just give them responsibilities
and abandon them,” he said. “They guide
them and they teach them.”
Special coverage on the alignment between K-12
schools and postsecondary education is supported
in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation,
at www.luminafoundation.org. Education Week
retains sole editorial control over the content
of this coverage.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - April 24, 2013
Education Week - April 24, 2013
Union Sues Over Basis of Appraisal
In San Antonio, Pre-K Initiative Sets Steep Goals
New Teachers Search for Place in New Orleans
FOCUS ON: CAREER READINESS: States Seek High School Pathways Weaving Academic, Career Options
News in Brief
PARCC Proposes Common-Core Test Accommodations
Some States Seek GED Alternative as Test Price Spikes
Blogs of the Week
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Online Socialization Is Hot Topic Among Researchers
Overhaul of the E-Rate Seen as a High Priority by FCC Commissioner
Comments Weighed on Vending Machine, ‘A La Carte’ Proposals
Corralling Local Support Still a Challenge
FOCUS ON: CAREER READINESS: Swiss Academic, Career Paths Designed to Cross
Obama’s Proposed Fix on Student Loans Ruffles Allies
Head Start Officials Tight-Lipped on Which Centers to Lose Aid
School Safety Legislation: A Tally by State
A NATION AT RISK: 30 YEARS LATER: Where Are We Now?
LAUREN BLAIR ARONSON: Advice to TFA From a Former Insider
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
CHRISTOPHER COLEMAN, KARL DEAN, JAMES MITCHELL JR., BETSY PRICE, & RONNIE STEINE: Embracing After-School Learning
Education Week - April 24, 2013