Swiss vocational training has a good reputation internationally, but fears have been raised that it is losing ground at home. But this only really applies to migrants, a study finds.
At the recent International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training in Winterthur, participants praised the Swiss dual VET system, that combines education with an apprenticeship at a host company. Currently at least two thirds of Swiss school leavers go down this route.
So why is there talk of a decline in its status? “I think that has a lot to do with developments in the economy, so in part with the trend towards upskilling because the labour market increasingly demands a post-secondary education” said Thomas Bolli from the KOF Swiss Economic Institute, part of the Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich.
People may have the impression that apprenticeships are not a good enough basis for boosting their skills and education, Bolli said. There has been, for example, much debate in the media about whether parents are pushing their children towards the matura, the diploma allowing direct entry into an academic university, he added.
Increasing internationalisation of the economy is another factor. Rising immigration from countries where the emphasis is on attainment of a university degree may also be affecting the perception of VET within Switzerland, he pointed out.
Bolli and his team wanted to know if they could back up this perception with hard data. For this, they came up a concept to measure the social status of VET against the academic route leading to a matura.
Life plans and test scores
They looked at the PISA test scores in reading and maths of 50,000 15 year old pupils and compared them with the pupils’ statements about what they wanted to do after obligatory school ended (aged 15-16 in Switzerland). “If social status of VET is decreasing we would expect the less able students to select an apprenticeship,” Bolli explained.
But in fact, there was a big overlap in PISA scores between those opting for the apprenticeship and academic routes. “So there are still people with very high PISA scores who opt for an apprenticeship,” Bolli said.
What is more: the overlap remained stable from 2000-2012. “One can conclude from this study that the social status of VET has not declined,” Bolli said.
Parental and country background
What about the educational background of parents, so often mentioned as a determining factor for educational attainment in Switzerland? It made no difference in terms of the social status of VET, Bolli said.
What did make a difference was country of origin. The reputation of apprenticeships was highest among those with a parent born in Switzerland, with those from countries with similar dual systems to Switzerland, like Germany and Austria, coming second. It was the lowest among teenagers with parents from countries with no strong apprenticeship tradition.
The study found however that the social status of apprenticeships increased the longer migrants stayed in Switzerland. “This suggests that information and socialisation play an important role here. Career advisory services should make migrants in particular aware of the strengths of the Swiss system,” Bolli said.
This includes the permeability of the Swiss system. For example, the vocational baccalaureate gives you two tickets: one into the job market and one into tertiary education and life-long learning, he added.
The Swiss Association of Commercial Employees said the study’s findings were very encouraging and confirmed that vocational training was “on the right track”.
“At the same time, we experience in discussions with parents and pupils how important it is to point out the many opportunities available during and after an apprenticeship,” Michael Kraft, the association’s Commercial Apprenticeship Expert, told swissinfo.ch in email comments.
In particular programmes for high potential students, like the vocational baccalaureate, should be strengthened further, he added.
Niklaus Schatzmann, who heads the secondary school and VET department in canton Zurich, has also seen reluctance on the part of foreigners to embrace VET. “Key here is not just the lack of knowledge about the system but also the lack of trust and belief that basic vocational training is just as valuable as school-based education,” he said via email.
That’s why canton Zurich’s careers service runs the Integras service for migrants, with information in several different languages. This service is sufficient, he says, but efforts to reach out to migrant target groups in general should be increased.
Overall, Schatzmann said that employers and cantons had done much to make VET attractive and to ensure it meets the future demands of the work market. This includes creating new careers such as interactive media design.
“So it’s not surprising that the attractiveness and status of VET has risen rather than fallen,” he concluded.
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