Roots of the apprenticeship
The Swiss system of vocational and professional education and training (VPET) traces its roots back to the guild system where education and training was provided by businesses specialised in craftsmanship. The first vocational schools to combine theory and practice were the Watchmaking School in Geneva, (1924) and the trade school in Bern (1928). These schools emerged from commercial activities and private initiative. Larger industrial companies would also play a pioneering role. In 1870, the Swiss technology corporation Sulzer created a school that would later provide inspiration for combined school/work-based VET programmes (also referred to as dual-track VET programmes) in Switzerland. At the time, the Sulzer School trained metalworkers and foundry men. Theoretical principles were taught in a classroom setting and applied afterwards during paid apprenticeships at the company. Other companies followed suit.
Federal Vocational Education and Training Act
The first Federal Vocational Education and Training Act came into force in 1933. The combined school/work-based model was adopted for upper-secondary level VET programmes. Following this approach, private companies and public vocational schools began working closely together. In 2004, new legislation was enacted, the Federal Vocational and Professional Education and Training Act (VPETA) based on the Federal Constitution (Art. 63, para. 1). As laid down in the Swiss Constitution, the Confederation and the cantons, within the scope of their powers, do jointly ensure the high quality and accessibility of the Swiss Education Area. They additionally ensure that equal recognition of general and vocational courses of study is achieved in society. As defined in the Federal Constitution, the cantons are responsible for ensuring that the VPETA is implemented. Meanwhile each canton has its own cantonal legislation.
Equal recognition of general and vocational education
A new paragraph on equal recognition in the VPETA was adopted by a popular vote in May 2006 by an overwhelming majority of the Swiss population. It shows that vocational and general education schools are both well respected options in the Swiss educational landscape for young people. The VPETA covers all fields, including health care, social care and art. The VPETA is very flexible and leaves room for various types of education and training models. The individual branches may therefore make targeted adjustments to their VET curriculum whenever the need arises.
Education and working skills
A well-functioning governance structure is enabled through the strong public-private partnership in VET (see chapter on Governance of VPET system). The spectrum of basic vocational training includes many different sectors, branches and specializations. The VPET system carries legally the social responsibility to enable individuals to develop both professionally and personally and help them to integrate into society. Each curriculum includes basic competences in language, communication and society (Art.15 VPETA). VET enables young people to gain a foothold on the employment ladder, and prepares the next generation of qualified managers and skilled workers. Apprentices accept responsibility for their tasks from the first day of their apprenticeship and learn to carry out their work processes independently. Training content is designed to provide youth with vocational skills for which there is a demand on the labour market. Job availability depends on the economy's current and future staffing requirements. This means that the number and type of apprenticeships on offer are determined by the market itself (demand-driven).The Swiss VPET system is based on clearly defined VET curriculum and national qualification procedures. VET takes place at upper-secondary level and professional education (PE) takes place at tertiary level. Both VET and PE take account of the differing abilities and needs of various age groups.
Switzerland is a federalist country with 26 independent cantons. The Swiss population is divided into four language regions (German, French, Italian and Romansh). Even though there are some regional differences in how VET is implemented, the various distinctions are always underpinned by legislation. For example, dual-track VET (i.e. combination of classroom instruction and paid apprenticeship) is more prevalent in the German-speaking part of Switzerland in general, whereas in the French-speaking part more school-based VET takes place. VET ordinances serve as the common basis for both types of VET programme, therefore the same federal qualification can be obtained by following dual-track or school-based VET programmes.
More than two-thirds of young people in Switzerland chose a VET pathway. In 2012, 77,000 people pursued a dual-track VET career. Young people are generally between 16 and 18 years old when they begin a VET programme. The most common form of VET in Switzerland is the dual-track pathway, which always includes an apprenticeship. VET and PE qualifications are highly regarded in Switzerland. They are an attractive way to start a career and they often serve as first choice for very able students. VET and PE are not seen as an easy way out or as a last resort for people, who do not have any other options. This is illustrated by the fact that, in the Swiss dual-track approach to VET, certain occupations, which are predominantly positioned at tertiary level in other countries, are taught at upper-secondary level (for example in the health care sector). VET is the main route into work. It offers good and prestigious career growth opportunities, it includes a well-developed system of professional education (PE) at tertiary level, and recognised pecuniary benefits. VET graduates attending further education at tertiary level experience a substantial increase in wages. This is documented by extensive cost-benefit analyses of the VPET system. Individuals who obtained a PE qualification earn, on average, 25% more than individuals whose highest qualification is at upper–secondary level (VET or general education). These findings show that VET serves well as the starting point of a successful professional career.
- Cattaneo M. (2011): New Estimation of Returns to Higher Professional Education and Training, Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training, 3(2), (p. 71–84): http://ervet.ch/pdf/PDF_V3_Issue2/Cattaneo.pdf
- Cattaneo, M. & Wolter, S. (2011). Der individuelle Ertrag einer höheren Berufsbildung. Die Volkswirtschaft. Das Magazin für Wirtschaftspolitik 12(1), (pp. 63-66): http://dievolkswirtschaft.ch/de/2011/12/cattaneo/
- Swiss Education Report 2014: http://skbf-csre.ch/fileadmin/files/pdf/bildungsmonitoring/Swiss_Education_Report_2014.pdf