AMONG the many things that Switzerland is well-known for is its dual-track vocational and professional education and training (VPET) system. As Singapore presses on with the next stage of economic development, there is focus on promoting vocational education and life-long learning. The Republic is looking to learn from the Swiss experience in this field as it develops its own model of vocational education suited for the local economy.
Just last month, a Singapore delegation consisting of officials from the Singapore Workforce Development Agency and the Nanyang Polytechnic attended the 2nd International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training in Switzerland.
Similarly, among others, a delegation from Singapore's Ministry of Education visited Switzerland last year with the aim to understand in depth the Swiss educational and career guidance systems, as well as the coordination between industry needs and education strategies. The delegation visited different institutions and career-counselling centres.
Based on a strong public-private partnership, with a key role for the private sector, the Swiss VPET system aims at transmitting skills and competencies to young people in a most effective and efficient way. The goal is to stay very close to the practical needs of the labour market of the private sector and to create a beneficial situation for all. The dual approach is at its core and relies on involving young people from the very beginning of their training into practical, real processes.
Importantly, the Swiss VPET system is collectively managed and implemented as a public-private partnership. There are three main partners who each contribute in their own ways to the system. Their specific roles complement each other.
Switzerland's central government is responsible for the strategic planning and development of the entire system. Its role is to ensure comparability and transparency within the system and to guarantee the national recognition of qualifications. It also has a supporting role for the other partners through partial financing and a national competency centre.
The cantons - the local governments - are mainly responsible for implementation matters and for the supervision of the vocational schools and host companies. They run and finance the vocational schools, issue VET (vocational education and training) accreditation to the host companies and provide young people and adults with vocational and career guidance counselling.
But the private sector is, by far, the most important partner. Its main agents are the professional associations (trade and branch associations) on the one hand and their members, the individual companies, on the other hand. They are responsible for defining and continuously updating the actual content of the qualifications within the system. The companies offer apprenticeship positions to young people and cover the practical part of the training. The social partners - employers association and trade unions - also have a role in the management of the system on the national level. All in all, the private sector contributes the most resources to the VPET system.
"Companies and professional organisations are in the driver's seat in the Swiss VET system. Hence, the system is driven by the demand on the labour market. Credentials are recognised by the federal government and lead to progression routes in the whole education system. That means permeability and progression routes are secured for all learners the whole life," Ursula Renold, head, research centre for comparative education system at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, told The Business Times.
"Furthermore, the VET system is based on a public-private partnership where companies get a net benefit out of the training provided by them. Therefore, Singapore could learn how to improve linkage between actors from the education and employment system. At ETH Zurich, we are working with several partners in Singapore and supporting them to understand how linkage along educational processes can be developed."
Swiss VET graduates in the age group of 16-20 spend more than half of the time at the workplace where they learn and earn and contribute to the productivity of the company. That leads to several advantages such as learning on the best available technologies and being constantly exposed to unexpected and unfamiliar situations, Dr Renold explains. "The latter is the most efficient way to learn 21st century skills - for example, problem-solving skills, soft skills and other transferable competencies. Due to rapid changes on the labour market, such skills will be decisive for leading economies such as Singapore."
Sharing her personal experience, Dr Renold reveals: "I started my educational career with an apprenticeship in a bank at the age of 15. At that time I was tired of going to school and wanted to become an adult while learning and earning. It was a very important first step into the labour market and stimulated my self-confidence and self-esteem.
"Due to a high permeability within the education system I had all the options to move on with my educational career, study at university and end up with a PhD. Hence, I had the chance to constantly develop my qualifications in the education system while acquiring experience on the labour market. That was a very important experience and decisive for my professional career."
A key feature of vocational and professional education and training in Switzerland is its full integration into the country's education system. After compulsory school (until age 15/16), young people have two main options for the continuation of their education and training: vocational education and training or general education.
Vocational and professional education and training complements the general education part of the system on equal terms - both at the upper secondary level and at the tertiary level. The Swiss VPET system offers numerous training possibilities and qualifications on both these levels. Both levels of training are very important in terms of ensuring an adequate supply of skilled workers for the Swiss economy.
In Switzerland, the VPET system enjoys considerable prestige and has a solid reputation. Around two-thirds of all young people coming out of compulsory school opt for vocational education and training. These young people have around 230 different occupations to choose from, both in the white- and blue-collar sectors. Young people choose to train as mechanical engineers, cooks, healthcare professionals, commercial employees (in banking, insurance, business, etc), retail sales people, carpenters, IT professionals and in many more professions.
Most of these programmes are taken in the form of apprenticeships, which last between two and four years. They end with a journeyman's exam and the young people get a federally recognised diploma or qualification, which allows them to enter the labour market immediately.
An important aspect of the Swiss education system is the almost complete permeability between different education pathways. Whatever you choose to do after compulsory school as a young person, all the further education and career options will still be available later on. While most young people choose to enter the labour market after their apprenticeship, they still have the options for further education and training afterwards.
Significantly, the Swiss VPET system is a valid option for talented young people and serves as a cornerstone for integration for up to 95 per cent of all young people and adults pursuing education and employment in Switzerland. Very few members of Swiss society lack upper secondary level qualifications and/or find themselves in a situation of unemployment. At the same time, without the continuous work of the companies or the professional organisations, this dual system would not work. Thirty to 40 per cent of companies are able to train apprentices in Switzerland. Their engagement is voluntary, but based on their own long-term interests. They are interested in securing a long-term supply of qualified professionals to stay competitive and innovative. But they also benefit from the productive output of apprentices - in most cases this output outweighs the costs of training. Lastly, there is also a strong cultural factor of social responsibility.
Companies and their professional organisations therefore develop and regularly update the professional training and the curricula; the state only intervenes to support this process and to ensure certain quality standards. They organise the practice-oriented qualification procedures at the end of apprenticeship. They also provide the teachers, the trainers and the experts for all parts of the process and they co-fund the system, bearing around 60 per cent of the costs.
Thus, it is evident that the Swiss VPET system is close to the needs of the economy, because it is truly the private sector which is in the driver's seat. The state has its important role too, but it is subsidiary.