Swiss mix work, learning

U.S. adults score well below the global competition in literacy, numeracy and problem solving using technology, according to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

While older Americans scored well, younger Americans lagged behind workers in other developed countries, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. should learn from Switzerland’s vocational education system, say Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future and Bob Schwartz, a Harvard education professor.

Two-thirds of Swiss teens choose to “combine learning at the workplace and learning in a classroom,” says Schwartz. Switzerland has the “lowest youth unemployment rate in the developed world, yet it ranks very high in innovation and economic performance.

When you talk to Swiss leaders and ask how can this be, you have such a small fraction of your young people going through the university system, the Swiss will say, “No, no, it’s because we really invest in preparing folks who are at the front lines and we look to our kind of everyday workers to provide a lot of the innovation that really spurs the economy.”

Young Swiss apprentices are put to work immediately, says Hoffman.

. . .  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.  You go to Swiss.com which is the biggest telephone Internet provider in Switzerland and there they have an extremely innovative program where students can choose to work on any project that any employer posts on a bulletin board.

By the third year, at age 17 or 18, apprentices earn about $1,000 a month, says Schwartz. Once they complete the program, they’ve earned a valuable qualification which puts them “on a ladder to a middle-class wage.” That idea is spreading to the U.S.

. . . Volkswagen, which operates a 3,000-person plant in Chattanooga proudly announced the completion of a first apprenticeship program in automotive mechatronics for 25 young people.  They do this in partnership with a regional community college there.  These people now have a qualification that is worldwide in value.

Vocational education isn’t stigmatized in Switzerland, Finland and other countries that have modernized their systems, Hoffman says.

 So while they teach construction and they teach carpentry and they teach the old trades, the system is really known as the place you go if you want any kind of high-tech skills.  If you want to be an engineer, if you want to work in IT, if you want to learn graphic design, if you want to be a nurse, if you want to be a childcare teacher, you go to the vocational system.

In Switzerland, vocational students can go on to the University of Applied Sciences.  At Credit Suisse, 40 percent of apprentices also were studying for a professional baccalaureate, says Schwartz. “There are no dead ends.”

The diamond economy

The U.S. economy resembles an hourglass with a pinched middle, writes Marc Tucker. Singapore has a diamond economy, thanks to its educated workforce.

(Singapore) built a very high floor under the entire workforce by providing a world-class academic curriculum to all their students and creating a world-class teaching force to teach that curriculum.  They built a system of polytechnics as good as any in the world to provide very highly skilled senior technical workers for a wide range of industries.  Perhaps most impressive, they created a set of post-secondary vocational schools for the bottom quarter of their students as fine as any I have seen anywhere in the world, with facilities that rival those of many American universities.  They turned vocational education and training from a dumping ground into a sought-after alternative that attracts more and more students every year.

Ninety percent of Singapore’s vocational graduates have job offers in their chosen fields within six months of graduation, Tucker writes.  Youth unemployment is very low.

The death of voc ed — and the middle class

The death of vocational education is hastening the demise of the middle class, argues Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

Years ago, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools whose graduates were virtually assured good jobs, Tucker writes. Employers made sure these schools had “competent instructors and up-to-date equipment,” so graduates would meet job requirements.

That ended when vocational education became just another class, often crowded out by academic requirements, Tucker writes.

I will never forget an interview I did a few years ago with a wonderful man who had been teaching vocational education for decades in his middle class community.  With tears in his eyes, he described how, when he began, he had, with great pride prepared young men (that’s how it was) for well-paying careers in the skilled trades.  Now, he told me, “That’s all over.  Now I get the kids who the teachers of academic courses don’t want to deal with.  I am expected to use my shop to motivate those kids to learn what they can of basic skills.”  He was, in high school, trying to interest these young people, who were full of the despair and anger that comes of knowing that everyone else had given up on them, to learn enough arithmetic to measure the length of a board.  He knew that was an important thing to do, but he also knew that it was a far cry from serious vocational education of the sort he had done very well years earlier.

Career academies were developed to motivate students, not to prepare them for real jobs, Tucker writes. Voc ed, now renamed “career technical education,” is no longer a “serious enterprise” in high schools.

By contrast, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries “doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.”

They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills.  And they designed programs that could deliver those skills.  They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them.  They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment.  Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians.  No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life.  But those students have a range of attractive choices.

Tucker links to descriptions of vocational education in the NetherlandsAustralia and Singapore.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for states to require school attendance till age 18 or graduation. If schools offer no options except the college track, that seems cruel.