California Forum

Few Swiss kids go to college, but they find good careers. Could it work here?

Students from California State University, Sacramento, wait to receive diplomas at their graduation ceremony in 2012. In Switzerland, few students attend school full time after 9th grade. Instead, many follow an apprenticeship path to their careers.
Students from California State University, Sacramento, wait to receive diplomas at their graduation ceremony in 2012. In Switzerland, few students attend school full time after 9th grade. Instead, many follow an apprenticeship path to their careers. Sacramento Bee file

In Switzerland, full-time education is mandatory only through 9th grade, when students are generally 15 years old. Few continue full-time schooling past that point. But before jumping to any conclusions about what sounds like an uneducated nation, consider this:

The vast majority of those students work at part-time apprenticeship jobs in generally well-paid fields. Many of those jobs would require a college degree here. They’re paid during their apprenticeship, and continue to attend school part time. By the time they’re done with the program, at age 18 or 19, they have a career, usually with the company where they trained.

I’ve been in email contact lately with several mothers in Switzerland about its apprenticeship system. I’ve heard about the girl who went into hotel management – a career that would require a college degree in the United States, if not a graduate degree as well. Her education added up to five years – four in part-time training plus part-time schooling and an extra year of training. I learned about the husband who was a bank executive without a college degree for 15 years, and only then went to university because he feared his credentials wouldn’t be taken seriously in the United States.

Here, we force kids into required college-prep courses, press teachers to pass them on toward graduation even when they haven’t mastered the material, then push colleges to accept and graduate more of them, while California’s public colleges and universities are bulging at the seams. We justifiably worry how students will pay for college and where we’ll find the money to educate more and more of them for what we think is a requirement for 21st-century jobs. Less than two-thirds of U.S. students at four-year colleges complete their educations within six years. It’s a waste of their time and everyone’s money.

If there’s one thing Donald Trump has been right about when it comes to education, it is that we have woefully undervalued vocational education and the skilled workers it produces. This doesn’t mean reverting to old-fashioned shop classes in fields that are rapidly being taken over by robotics and artificial intelligence. It means real training that produces people who can do everything a college grad or someone with an associate’s degree could do, and then some. In Switzerland, companies are eager partners; they find the young apprentices well worth the training and small salaries they receive as compensation.

We could interest more students in education, start them on more promising futures and create a workforce able to take on the jobs of the future by considering the Swiss model.

Instead, we use a college degree as a proxy for real ability – and no wonder, with so many high school students graduating without the reading, writing and other skills needed to for real careers. I think of a woman I know from Roseville who was an adept office manager for many years. She moved to Southern California, where she couldn’t get a similar job despite glowing recommendations. A college degree had become a prerequisite for the job, an egregious case of education inflation.

The Swiss system has its drawbacks. Kids are pressed to make career decisions early on in their lives. Full-time academic high school is open only to those who can pass rigorous entrance examinations, which makes it tough on kids who might be late bloomers. Only about 25 to 30 percent take on this challenge, and the schools are highly rigorous compared with ours. Students who graduate have the equivalent of a year to two of college.

But there’s also plenty of built-in flexibility. Teenagers can change their apprenticeships during or after them. There’s a pathway for them to try for a university education with a “passarelle” (or bridge) year that catches them up on the courses they need. Susanne Gutzwiller wrote to me about her daughter Cassie who apprenticed to become a doctor’s assistant, and now is considering going to university to become a nurse. By the time students reach this point, they have greater maturity and more clarity about their goals, as well as courses and experience in their chosen field; they’re much more likely to complete their college studies successfully.

Jennifer Weiss, who moved from the United States to Switzerland, where she is raising two daughters, has seen both systems up close and definitely prefers the second one.

“Frankly, having lived with the U.S. system, and having read about the enormous amounts of debt, coupled often with a less than inspiring job market for many students who graduate from U.S. colleges and universities, I strongly believe that it’s time to reexamine the entire American system of education and job placement,” Weiss wrote to me. “If one looks back in US history, I am sure that past generations were largely educated by on-the-job training, apprenticeships, mentoring, and when necessary, professional schooling. When did it become a ‘necessity’ to have a college degree to be eligible for most jobs?”

There are complications in trying to translate the Swiss system to the U.S. This is a more racially diverse nation with an unacceptable history of depriving black and Latino students of college-prep courses and ushering them toward vocational education no matter how great their talents might be. It would take some stiff rules and ongoing oversight to prevent an apprenticeship program from becoming an excuse to do that all over again.

At the same time, we haven’t been doing disadvantaged students any favors with inadequate public-school education and graduation to colleges where they lose faith, feel frustrated and end up dropping out, with no degrees or skills to bring to the workplace. Perhaps if we stopped thinking of college education as a cure-all for American students, they’d actually be much better educated.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.