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.

School’s outside

In a town in northern Switzerland, 4- to 7-year-olds spend the day outside in “forest kindergarten,” writes Emily Bazelon.

It’s autumn. A few kids splash through a muddy creek. One boy falls down in the water, gets up, squawks, keeps going. A larger group sits and jumps in a makeshift-looking tent that consists of a tarp hung over a pole, with low walls made from stacked branches. A teacher tootles on a recorder. Later, the teacher describes the daily routine: Singing, story time, eating, and “then the children can play where they want in the forest.” She continues, “During the play time, the children have a lot of space. They can go where they want. Usually I know where they are playing but I cannot see them always.” The camera pans to a girl on a rope swing, swinging shockingly high into the tree canopy.

Academics usually don’t begin until age 7 in Switzerland, Bazelon writes. Swiss kids soon catch up, say the filmmakers.

In their new book, The App Generation, education professors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis argue that kids today are becoming more risk averse. “Rather than wanting to explore, to try things out by themselves, young people are always pushing to find out exactly what is wanted, when it is wanted, how it will be evaluated, what comes next and where we end up,” they said in a recent Q-and-A.

When Bazelon was on a panel with Gardner, he made a related comment: Many American kids today never have been lost.  “They have never been outside, in an unfamiliar place, without a parent or a GPS or a phone app to guide them. They don’t know what it’s like to lose your way in the world around you and to make do until you find it again.”

An American teaching in Finland was surprised that elementary school kids get themselves to school on their own. Children get frequent breaks – 45 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of recess — and play outside, rain or shine.

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.

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.”

Hey, big spender

The U.S. spends more on education than any OECD country except for Switzerland, according to Veronique de Rugy, a Mercatus Center senior research fellow.  The U.S. spends an average of $91,700 per student between the ages of six and 15, a third more than high-scoring Finland, she estimates.