Vocational training: A key recipe for Swiss economic success

In past years, this unique education system has attracted a great deal of high-level attention.

Switzerland (photo credit: REVITAL HORESH)
(photo credit: REVITAL HORESH)
Has anyone ever wondered how come Switzerland regularly features at the top of world ranking in competitiveness and innovation?
How come unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is among the world’s lowest? How come Swiss salaries and GDP per capita are highest among industrialized nations? Don’t look further. The magic formula has a name: apprenticeship or, to use a more modern label, VET: Vocational Education Training.
People look with amazement when one tells them that seven out of 10 Swiss young people do not go to high school. That they leave school at age 15 or 16 to join a company as an apprentice. After three or four years spending 80% of their time on the job and 20% at specialized schools, they graduate in their profession, be it commercial employee, health worker, or IT technician. With the federal certificate they receive, usually when they become 19 or 20 years old, they can easily find a job and are immediately operational.
But they do not need to quit any education ambition then. After they have completed this first degree, around 15% of them choose to continue their studies. Eventually, they can join a university and graduate like any other young person who went through the traditional high school–to-university track. The difference is that the university graduate who went through a VET program will master both the practical aspects of the job, and the more theoretical one taught at university. Such profiles are in high demand on the job market.
Let me illustrate the system by providing the example of a young relative of mine. At 15, he left compulsory school to join a machine factory as an apprentice. Three years later, he graduated as a mechanic. At 18, he entered a technical high school for a one-year baccalaureate bridging program that allowed him to enter a university, where he became within two years an engineer. At 21, his first job was a representative of the machine company where he started his professional path for the US, based in Chicago. Meaning, that whenever there was a problem with one of the company’s products, he would be dispatched in Detroit or San Diego to fix the problem. Today, he is 27 and he owns a small-and-medium-sized enterprise of more than 50 employees, producing spare parts for all sorts of companies, including in the automotive, medical and space industries.
In past years, this unique education system has attracted a great deal of high-level attention. Many foreign officials, including former French president François Hollande, visited companies training apprentices. It has also become an export hit of the Swiss soft power. For instance, in 2015, a cooperation agreement has been signed between the United States and Switzerland to develop a VET system in the US. Also, a cooperation is developing with Israel.
Obviously, for the system to work, both the companies and the young people must see an interest in it. And they do. Almost 40% of Swiss companies train apprentices, because they see benefits in terms of quality of their workers, but also in financial terms and, last but not least, companies with apprentices prove to be more innovative and competitive. For the apprentices, you get some handsome pocket money at a young age, but also you can count that you will have a decently paid job after graduating. And the sky is the limit for your future professional development.
When I explain the merits of VET to an Israeli public, I am often told this cannot work here. Parents would find it degrading for their children. This attitude is deeply wrong. Introducing VET Swiss-style in Israel would help address some of the serious shortages of skilled workers that the country faces while providing far-reaching opportunities to all.
The author Ambassador of Switzerland to Israel.