Before we jump into the details…
Imagine for a moment the story of a student called Mia.
Although she’s provided with the general education option for upper secondary education, she still chooses to enroll in Vocational Education & Training (VET). Mia represents the choice of around 72% of new entrants to upper secondary education in Switzerland. This shows clearly that VET is a very attractive career path. Yet the story doesn’t end here. Even though Mia can attend school-based VET, she opts for dual VET. This’s what 85% of all entrants in the VET programs do.
Switzerland has the most highly skilled workers in the world. Thanks to its vocational training and professional development, up to 70% of secondary school students take part in its ‘gold-standard’ VET system. Students combine school with learning in a workplace setting. There’s less emphasis on degrees—under a third of students under 25 go into tertiary education.
But what’s dual education and why does it matter?
In simple words, dual education is a system in which apprenticeships at a company are combined with courses in a vocational school. It’s of great importance as it contributes to developing high-quality, practical skills that are demanded by employers.
Thus, it has a significant impact on increasing the employability of students and finally in easing their path to gainful and immediate employment. One thing is obvious—when dual education is the topic, all eyes turn towards Switzerland (or Germany for that matter) which successfully applies this education model.
Here’s the real kicker: the Swiss dual education system is unique
Let’s go back to the story of Mia. Like other apprentices, she spends one day a week at school learning foundation skills, such as math and language, as well as the theory supporting her work. The rest of her time is for the workplace. Now, you might be wondering: is she not a full-time student?
This’s where the duality of the system lies. In the workplace, Mia learns through doing, observing, and communicating with her skilled mentor and experiencing how her theoretical knowledge can solve real problems. This’s how she realizes her dedication and love for her profession which prepares the ground to become a successful electro-technical officer.
For Dr. Markus Maurer, who is a professor of vocational education at Zürich University of Teacher Education, factors such as the “broad range of occupations, strong competence orientation and involvement of the private sector not only into the provisioning of VET but also in its governance,” make Swiss dual VET so attractive and unique.
Students can choose among VET programs in around 230 occupations which prepare them to achieve two types of VET qualifications: VET certificate and VET diploma. These programs cover all sectors of the Swiss economy, including construction, engineering, health, and banking. All VET programs in Switzerland are strongly competence oriented.
But what’re these competencies about? They’re focused on two main fields: vocational competencies (i.e. occupation-specific competencies) and transversal competences (e.g. self, social and methodological competencies). And best of all, the dual-track VET is only possible thanks to those approximately 30 percent of all companies in the Swiss economy that get involved in training VET students. Associations (mainly representing employers) are also active in crafting VET policy as well as the (occupation-specific) VET ordinances, training plans, and qualification procedures.
A model for others? Yes, but with adaptation
Outside of Switzerland, other countries credit the dual education system is as a solution for decreasing youth unemployment. Bear with us, because we’re going to show you how.
Mergim Jahiu, an international advisor at the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET) emphasizes two key areas of the dual Swiss VET system that could be inspiring for other countries that aim to reform their VET systems. The first is the well-functioning public-private partnership and social dialogue. The second is making the vocational pedagogy integrated into the world of work.
As the system is the shared understanding between the private sector and the government, this’s led to greater ownership of stakeholders due to consensus-based decisions and shared responsibilities. Jahiu has been involved in supporting countries like North Macedonia by collaborating with the E4E@mk project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). He observed that instead of a copy-paste approach of the dual Swiss VET system, it’s very important to have an adaptive approach, i.e. adapt the success factors to the context of that particular country.
If you think back to a time, the core elements of dual VET as explained by Prof. Dr. Maurer and Jahiu sound nothing novel for our parents and grandparents. This was a predominant VET approach in the former Yugoslavia. The end of communism and transition to democracy and the free-market economy was reflected in every aspect of life and VET education was not an exception. The partnerships between then- public enterprises and public VET schools should now be replaced by partnerships between mainly private enterprises and public VET schools.
But what’s in for private sector enterprises?
“Higher productivity and growth”, says Stefan Thomas, an expert at European Training Foundation (ETF). He explains that employers that offer opportunities for learning at the workplace may benefit directly from better technical and job-specific skills among learners, graduates, and employees. Second, the recruitment potential of learners and graduates, like Mia, is another major benefit for enterprises. Learners also do productive work that may return some or even all the costs to their host companies.
A good example is Project 20-20-20 of EVN, power distribution and supply company in North Macedonia. It is a pioneer in the country in implementing the dual track in the 3-year VET in parallel to the existing school-based track in cooperation with the VET school “Mihajlo Pupin”.
Aneta Petrovska-Rusomaroski, Head of Human Resources and Organization at the company, remembers the challenges faced in introducing and implementing this project: “It took us many resources and efforts. We faced challenges as a company. We were preparing for 2 years, starting from needs assessment to preparing legal analysis, learning from good practices in developed systems, and preparing the company in terms of skills and organizational design.”
With that said, it’s also important to stress that North Macedonia is at the “experimental stage” of the dual approach. The country is piloting in 7 VET schools and 16 companies. Therefore, the existing cooperation between the private sector and the VET schools is based on the “space” provided in the Law for Secondary Education, Article 39, explains Anica Aleksova, Education Policy, and Governance Expert at the E4E@mk project.
According to Aleksova, several amendments should be incorporated in the legal framework so that favorable conditions for the implementation of a dual VET approach are built (e.g. the right to schools and companies to organize and get engaged in dual VET along with their clear roles and responsibilities).
Let’s conclude with a word of caution from Isabelle Dauner Gardiol and Zenebe Uraguchi who wrote on the Swiss dual education system. While recognizing the benefits of the system they also pointed out that realities on the ground are sometimes more nuanced, and not everything is rosy.
The system contributes to low unemployment rates of youth, but it also comes with a cost for those young boys and girls who aren’t yet mature for the world of work. One cannot also forget the gender aspect: imagine a girl who dreams about becoming a professional mason. She’ll have a hard time finding a company that offers her an apprenticeship place, even in Switzerland.