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Singapore can learn from Swiss system: ITE chief

Mr Poh points out that the strength of the Swiss learning system is that it is closely linked to the labour market.

SKILLED professionals in Switzerland are very often more valued than academic graduates from the country's traditional universities. And if you are a master craftsman, you are very well-respected and paid, says the head of Singapore's Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

"Many who took the vocational education and training (VET) route have become CEOs of companies. I was impressed with the systematic and high-skilled training opportunities given to young people in a wide range of professions," says Bruce Poh, director and chief executive officer of ITE, who says that Singapore can learn from the Swiss. "The Swiss VET system is highly revered with strong support from industries. Two-thirds of young people opt for VET, which provides deep skills learning and a solid foundation in a given occupation. It forms the basis of life-long learning and opens up a wealth of job prospects, with good careers."

VET is considered a parallel track of learning and career development with no dead end. Apprentices can progress to professional colleges and universities of applied sciences, if they wish to, he points out.

According to Mr Poh, there is wide acceptance of the dual-track approach to learning in Switzerland. In fact, the apprenticeship route is a highly respected and valued alternative to academic education. Swiss apprenticeship programmes typically last three to four years, with young people spending, on average, three days a week in the workplace and two days studying at a vocational college. There are around 230 occupations to choose from.

"In Switzerland, the commitment of industry to developing young people via apprenticeships is exceptionally strong, and is deeply ingrained as part of the development of the industry as a whole. So, the industry is willing to train young apprentices who may not end up with the same employers who trained them," notes the ITE chief. "This is considered as investment for the future of the Swiss industry. Even if their apprentices ultimately move on, they know that they will be able to recruit others who are trained to the same standard."

Apprentices do not pay any fees. The courses are free for anyone who has an apprenticeship contract approved by the cantonal authorities. In some cases, the host companies can combine their strengths to offer one or more apprenticeships in a modular format. Such arrangements are suitable for companies which have limited manpower or are specialised in only one or more aspects covered by the VET programme. At the end of the apprenticeship, the apprentices have nationally recognised qualifications that are portable, and the opportunity to move directly into full-time employment or to continue into higher education.

Mr Poh points out that the strength of the Swiss learning system is that it is closely linked to the labour market. "The VET programmes closely match the needs of the labour market, both in terms of occupational skills and the number of available jobs. This close correlation explains why Switzerland has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates of just 8.6 per cent compared with 20.4 per cent in the EU countries."

Another feature of the Swiss system is that there is permeability and career prospects between the academic and VET tracks. "Unlike in some other countries, the Swiss system provides parallel ways to allow students to move between academic and vocational studies, as well as from VET to professional education and training (PET) at a university of applied sciences. Continuing education and training options are also available at all levels. Hence, VET is viewed in high regard with 'no dead end'," points out Mr Poh.

PET provides learners with specific qualifications and prepares them for managerial and specialised positions. There are more than 400 PET programmes. The universities focused on applied sciences offer an excellent learning environment with their small campuses, communal atmosphere, good learning infrastructure, well-equipped laboratories, good student/faculty ratio, small study groups, student-oriented classes, and highly qualified teachers, who are often involved in applied research and/or professional practice. "Most recent studies show that 96 per cent of students find employment in their professional fields within 12 months of graduating," Mr Poh adds.

Importantly, the VET system is a shared responsibility of the government, employers, educators and learners, he highlights. "It is highly commendable that the Swiss government, employers, professional associations and other stakeholders have shared goals to work in tandem to develop a flexible, responsive and globally admired VET system. The Confederation, for instance, is responsible for strategic management and development of VET and PET and pays 25 per cent of public sector expenditure for the VET/PET system. The trade associations and companies determine the national training content and national qualification procedures; create apprenticeship positions; provide occupational skills; and develop new training courses."

At the canton level, the cantonal VET/PET offices, VET schools and educational and career guidance counselling providers are responsible for the implementation of VET and provision of 75 per cent of VET/PET funding.

Young people are encouraged to start thinking about their future early. From the age of 14, all school children have one hour a week of mandatory career education in school. They can also visit a career adviser in their local canton for one-to-one advice and guidance.

"As Singapore moves towards its next phase of development as an advanced economy and inclusive society, we will need every individual's skills, passion and contribution to flourish economically and as a society. While white-collar professionals will continue to play important roles in industry and economy, we will need skilled professionals to keep our factories running, man sophisticated machinery and implement technical solutions to upkeep infrastructure," says Mr Poh.

"Having deep skills and staying relevant throughout one's career increases one's employability, which is vital in today's context and in the increasingly volatile job market in the future. In an advanced economy, therefore, we will need workers who are deeply skilled, with abilities to apply knowledge and skills in more complex environments and changing job requirements."

Singapore is pursuing a SkillsFuture initiative to develop and deepen the skills of Singaporeans, notes the ITE chief. On an individual level, SkillsFuture encourages Singaporeans to pursue areas that complement their strengths, instead of being pigeon-holed in jobs they have little or no interest in. "The focus on skills therefore allows young persons to pursue their interest and passion in a field which makes for a fulfilling career, where one will take the initiative to keep learning and innovating. This goes a long way toward creating an inclusive society that embraces and values every skill and talent," says Mr Poh.

On a societal level, SkillsFuture aims to reduce the "paper chase syndrome", which is simply pursuing higher qualifications for its own sake. "There are many qualities and values which employers value besides a piece of certification, like hand skills, people skills, resilience and resourcefulness, etc. Through a wider definition of success, we create a society that values every skill for what it is worth, and not just paper qualifications," he adds.

Mr Poh shares that he was impressed with the systematic and high-skilled training opportunities given to young Swiss people in a wide range of professions. "Some are very competitive, like the watch-making industry, where apprenticeship training is the only way to train skilled employees for the lucrative watch-making industry.

"In the watchmaker apprenticeship of the Swatch Group, only three out of four apprentices will be employed by the company after three to four years of training. The rest can work for other companies, including their competitors. But they are okay to train for others. This is the generosity of the Swiss industries, which we have a lot to learn from.

"Although Singapore does not have the apprenticeship tradition of Switzerland, I must emphasise that the ITE and polytechnics have very good institutional technical and vocational education systems in place. What we need to strengthen is to have more in-company training and internships for our students. We are starting from a position of strength, and now under SkillsFuture, we are trying to tweak to further improve our systems, and create better opportunities and interest in skilled professions."

Mr Poh says ITE, for instance, has opened "Delicatessen", a real deli shop run by ITE students, who are taught how to bake pastries, prepare specialty coffee and run a bakery serving real customers. "In all our three colleges, we create an authentic learning environment that emulates what you find in industry and businesses. When our graduates start work, they can be productive and confident in contributing to their companies.

"For the future economy, we can do better. But we need the help of employers and industries to be part of our VET eco-system, to co-create real-life learning opportunities for our students," Mr Poh concludes.