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.”

Employers offer basic-skills classes

When adult education classes aren’t available, employers are stepping in to teach reading, basic math and English fluency to low-skilled workers, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Post.

Mya Maw, a 52-year-old Burmese immigrant, longs for a stable office job in Boston, where she’s raising twin teenage daughters and washing dishes at a hotel. To help reach her goal, she spends most mornings sitting through two hours of English or computer instruction, taking advantage of free basic-skills classes that are a small but significant part of a fractured U.S. adult-education system.

Hospitals, hotels and the food-service industry often offer classes on company space and sometimes company time. Maw’s classes are offered by her union.

Despite the recession, some employers can’t find entry-level workers with academic skills. They hire for “a rudimentary grasp of English and a good work ethic,” then provide training.

Mya Maw, 52, helps other students in Boston’s Hotel Training Center’s lowest level computer skills class. Maw, a hotel dishwasher, takes the next level computer course and English classes at the center. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

At the hotel training center, workers in basic-skills classes hope to qualify for a “coveted banquet-server position, which can pay up to $70,000 a year.” (Why so lucrative?) Others go on to community college and beyond.

In 2004, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston began training employees to fill dozens of vacancies for lab or surgical technicians. Many needed remedial coursework in basic reading, English, math and science. Then the center added GED preparation and English classes for immigrants.

Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps health care companies train their workers, reports that 60 percent of its participants earned certification or a degree and 47 percent received raises.

Some of these workers are immigrants, but others went through U.S. schools without acquiring basic reading, writing and math skills.

Years ago, my grandfather figured out why shipments were going astray in his factory. Some of the forklift drivers couldn’t read; they usually guessed correctly about what went where, but not always. He offered free reading classes after work to anyone who wanted help. The turnout was huge.  These were native-born, U.S.-educated Americans.