Swiss: Voc ed is key to prosperity

In Switzerland, which has one of the strongest economies in the world, 70 percent of high school students are in their vocational education system, while only 20 percent prep for universities. All vocational students spend part of their time in multi-year apprenticeships.

Apprenticeship vs. college

Apprenticeships are hot, but not all lead to middle-class jobs. A elevator constructor mechanic starts at $67,565 in Florida, more than double the starting pay of the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree. But apprenticeships in culinary arts and early childhood education lead to low-paying jobs.

Obama touts job training

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama pledged to encourage job training partnerships between community colleges and employers and expand apprenticeships. Neither is a new idea.

He also said he’d simplify federal job training programs — that was Mitt Romney’s proposal — and create a web site so job seekers would “have one program, one web site and one place to go for all the information and help they need.” (Let’s hope they hire a better web designer this time around.)

Swiss mix work, learning

Two-thirds of Swiss teens choose apprenticeships that combine workplace and classroom learning. “In the banking industry, we saw 16-year-olds in suits and little round glasses all sitting next to their hedge fund managers and actually handling aspects of accounts,” says Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future.

As wages rise for Chinese factory workers, U.S. textile makers are homesourcing industrial sewing jobs. When a night class didn’t produce enough workers, one company decided to train new workers on the factory floor, just like in the old days.

A future for all: Build paths to skilled jobs

While President Obama focuses on sending more young people to college, vocational education and apprenticeships, which build pathways to skilled jobs, are neglected.

Some aren’t ready for college at 18

Not every 18-year-old is ready for a four-year college, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound.  Many “end up in college because we have few maturing alternatives after high school, whether it’s national service, apprenticeships or structured ‘gap year’ experiences.” Well, we’ve got military service, work and community college.

Study art for art’s sake

Why study art? It’s not a way to boost math and reading scores, much less to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, writes Jay Greene. We’re trying to educate civilized human beings.

As he researches the effect of field trips to art museums on student learning, Greene encounters arts educators eager to climb on the economic utility bandwagon. Afraid art will be seen as a frill, they feel compelled to argue it’s a form of job training.

Most of what students learn in math and reading also has no economic utility.  Relatively few students will ever use algebra, let alone calculus, in their jobs.  Even fewer students will use literature or poetry in the workplace. When will students “use” history?  We don’t teach those subjects because they provide work-related skills. We teach algebra, calculus, literature, poetry, and history for the same reasons we should be teaching art — they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in.  We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.

Policymakers, pundits and others suffering from PLDD (petty little dictator disorder) use economic utility to club their critics into submission, Greene writes. Even math and reading must prove to be economically useful.

You have folks like Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills movement suggesting that we cut algebra because students won’t ‘need’ it.  Instead, students would be better off learning communication skills, like how to prepare an awesome Power Point (TM).  And you have Common Core cutting literature in English in favor of “informational texts.”

If the purpose of school is workforce prep, then let’s do away with it and set up apprenticeships, Greene writes.

His study asked 4,000 students to write short essays in response to Bo Bartlett’s painting, The Box.  “It may be harder to code and analyze essays about paintings than to run another value-added regression on the math and reading scores that the centralized authorities have collected for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.”

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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.”