Swiss choose apprenticeship over college

University education is free in Switzerland, but most students choose vocational training, Time reports.

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.”

After completing nine years of required schooling, two-thirds of 15 and 16 year olds choose Vocational Education and Training (VET), which combines three years of part-time classroom instruction with training at a company. The youth unemployment rate in Switzerland is less than 3 percent.

VET apprentices generate more revenues than they cost in salaries and instruction, so most companies profit from VET participation, even if they train more apprentices than they need. On average, VET graduates start at $50,000 a year.

Most young Americans won’t earn a college degree, says Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future in a Nation interview with Dana Goldstein. A Swiss-style apprenticeship system would motivate young people and qualify them for good jobs, she argues.

Volkswagon is starting a European-style apprenticeship program in Tennessee, but for high school graduates. . . . You probably have to start with more internships and apprenticeships at the community college level than in high school, because most people in this country just don’t believe that 16-year-olds can be productive workers—though there is plenty of evidence they certainly can be.

Goldstein asks: Should we worry if the vocational track really is the track for working-class kids?

America’s system — College for all but failure for most — provides less economic mobility than the apprenticeship model, Hoffman argues. “The really strong countries have pathways from vocational education straight through to technical colleges,” she adds. In Switzerland, 42 percent of the highest-scoring students enter the vocational system. “If you want to be an engineer, work in IT or any of these high-tech jobs, you’re going to be much more likely to get a job after real work experience.”

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  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Many, many 16 years can and want to do this. Remember adolescences was invented, yes invented roughly 100 years ago…We can do this for the kids that are bored to tears in school…

    Why do kids have to stay in school until 16 or 18? Who says kids are not abled body workers?

    Oh yeah, those in education who continue to profit off the kids who do not want to be in school. When do we start putting the students first…

    Not every students wants to or should go to college…there are countless options available and they should be available as early as high school…freshman year is fine for me…

    • Adolescence is biological.

      You speak like somebody who has never employed or managed teenagers. The best workers I’ve had are on track to graduate. The worst are the ones who are indifferent to school – they are usually just as indifferent to work. And frankly, there are fewer and fewer jobs for which an employer wants a kid who can’t perform basic academic work.

  2. It should also be remembered that compulsory schooling was pushed by the unions, because they didn’t want younger workers who might work for lower pay. At that time, such workers were without kids and likely to be unmarried. The unions pushed for minimum wage laws, as well; also to exclude those young workers – and blacks, who also would likely work for less. Adolescence is not only a recent construct, but is pretty much limited to the highly-developed countries.

    • The U.S. passed it’s first state-level mandatory education law in 1647. Mississippi was very late to the game, passing its first mandatory education law in 1917. You owe it to yourself to learn some history.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I love that characterization, “College for all but failure for most.”

        We pretend we have college for all. We don’t. It’s time to do better for the many who aren’t interested in or won’t do well in college.

      • I doubt you are referring to HS. I was.

      • The U.S. passed it’s first state-level mandatory education law in 1647?

        As a history maven you can probably explain how the U.S. passed a law over a hundred years before the nation came into existence. I eagerly await the explanation from one who advises others to learn some history.

        And as a matter of history, momof4 is absolutely right. The labor union movement was important in getting mandatory attendance laws passed to reduce competition for jobs. The labor unions weren’t the only group pressing for mandatory attendance laws but they were a significant factor and the labor unions were hardly interested, then as now, with the welfare of the children although they were perfectly willing to use that pretext to obscure the more self-serving, and real, motive.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Let’s rephrase that, “The first state-level compulsory education law in the United States was passed in Massachusetts in 1647.” It required towns of a certain size to employ a school teacher (basically so citizens would be able to read the Bible).

          However, the first law setting up a statewide system of government-run schools that pretty much every child had to attend was not passed until 1852, again in Massachusetts. The legislation, largely based on Horace Mann’s ideas and soon imitated by several other states, is one reason he is often called “the father of American public education.”

  3. However, what would work in Switzerland might not work in the U.S. due to the lack of basic education that many students would need in the U.S. just to have the type of opportunity that the students in Switzerland have.

    Given that the typical high school student (middle of the bell curve) is way behind their counterparts in many countries, and in most cases, doesn’t have the mental discipline to work hard (in some cases), this idea would probably not work in the U.S. unless it was given 15-20 years to improve U.S. education to the point where the students could actually handle the coursework in question for these types of skills/jobs/careers.

    • Where do you come up with your notion that American students are less capable of working than students from other countries? Sources? Facts?

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Where do you come up with the notion they do? Sources? Facts?

        It’s idiotic to demand every assertion be sourced in a blog comment section. It you want to disprove or argue another poster’s assertion come up with your own facts.

        Good Lord.

  4. My comment says:

    The problem with any of these “why can’t we have an X like they have in country Y?” proposal is that societies aren’t made of disconnected elements, each element works in context with the others.

    If you want Swiss style apprentice-based education, you also implicitly have to want the things that come with it: (largely class-based) tracking of children at a young age; lack of mobility in the workforce (very specialized training from a young age); less risk-taking, ambition, and entrepreneurship; little or no legal immigration (apart from high-skill professionals), with few rights for illegals.

    The more you try to detach out the bits you don’t want, the less the parts you are trying to keep work the way you want them to.

  5. This is a tad bit misleading. Some children choose the internship track, but most have no choice in it. Only the top 10-20% of students (varies by Canton) get accepted into the Gymnasium program,which you must graduate from to be accepted into a University.

    So, while some students who make the Gymnasium cut off choose to step back for the apprenticeship track, most on that track do not choose it at all.

    Additionally, you can and many do go to college after completing internships. They attend Applied Sciences Colleges. Teachers, nurses, etc attend these schools. It’s not an all or nothing thing.

    Oh, and when do you get slotted into on track or another? 11. Yep. 5th grade you take a test and your life is decided for you.

  6. Aaron,

    U.S. education achievement compared to the rest of the world is a joke, we’re constantly near the bottom in math and science, yet, we want to spend more money on education. If you take a look at spending on public education since the 1960’s (K-12) at all levels (city/county/state/federal), you would find that while spending has increased by almost 3.5 to 4 times as much since the 1960’s (adjusted for inflation), student achievement has remained pretty much flat.

    You don’t have to spend a fortune to provide a good education to a kid, many opportunities can be had at the local library, or working on reading/writing/math with a kid.

    I have a niece who is 6 1/2 and in first grade, she can add/subtract/multiply/divide (2 digit numbers), and add fractions. I’ve seen deli clerks in their 20’s who couldn’t do that (and I spend probably 30-40 minutes once a week with her math/reading/writing).

    If you’re looking for more information, check out the U.S. results on the TIMSS, and google ‘John Stossel – Stupid In America’, here’s the URL for the video segment:

    It gives american education a black eye indeed.

    Oh yeah, the 2 BILLION spent on Kansas City Schools to improve student achievement was perhaps the biggest waste of money (by federal court order) in history, since minority achievement didn’t improve and in general it was a colossal failure.

    URL for Kansas City debacle:

  7. The Swiss vocational/apprenticeship program is more than paid on-the-job-training. It is basically a co-opertive education program that also includes a significant amount of in-class instruction leading to a school diploma. So the 16 year olds are not ‘out of school’ but, actually, are continuing their schooling with the added complement of a significant portion of practical training.
    More students opt for this route not necessarily because they want to get into the work place sooner or see the merit in a practical approach to education (all of which might admittedly be arguments for the program). While admittance into a Swiss university is free for Swiss citizens, a requirement is that you have successfully graduated from a ‘Gymnasium’ (high school for those aspiring to go to university). The decision as to whether you will be able to attend such a school is made, I believe, in grade 4. So, already at this point in time, your academic future, although not necessarily cast in stone, has, based upon your academic performance, been plotted for you.