Editorial: Learn from the Swiss on youth jobs

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sees Switzerland as a model for California. And, no, it’s not the banks or watches. It’s Switzerland’s vocational education and training of young people, preparing them for the demanding jobs of the future.

Many developed countries worry about what has been called “generation jobless” after the Great Recession, in which young people are neither in jobs nor training. Switzerland, by contrast, has very low unemployment in the 16-to-24 age group.

Steinberg visited Switzerland and found a system in which students can choose to combine classroom and workplace learning after grade nine. Instead of sitting five days a week in classrooms, they spend three days in paid apprenticeships or internships and two days in academic work in the classroom.

This dual system of learning and work promotes high productivity and high-wage jobs, not dead-end, sub-living-wage jobs.

In this country, as the chart shows, high school diplomas alone ceased long ago to provide a pathway to well-paid, middle class jobs. But not all jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

“We’re different from Switzerland,” Steinberg says. “But the model and the practices are undeniable, a system where if a student does his or her part, there’s close to a guarantee of a high-wage job.”

California already has many high school career-technical programs, but they vary in quality and many serve only a small number of students.

How to build on that system, without reverting back to the dreaded “tracking” of old? The key, Steinberg believes, is “permeability” – not preparing some students just for college and others just for work, but providing all students with the skills needed to pursue a number of options.

To that end, Steinberg championed a $250 million California Career Pathways Trust for one-time, competitive grants, which passed the Legislature last July.

“This is a big seed,” Steinberg says, compared with President Barack Obama’s $100 million for Youth CareerConnect grants spread across the entire nation. The trust will give four-year grants to regional partnerships that link high schools, community colleges and businesses with a focus on work-based learning opportunities in high-need and high-growth sectors of the economy.

The demand is huge. Nearly 300 applications seeking more than $1.5 billion came in by the March 28 deadline. Announcements will be made on May 23.

The Sacramento region embraced the career pathways challenge with gusto as a key part of the “Next Economy” effort to expand and diversify our economic base – submitting two applications, one a collaboration between Elk Grove Unified and Sacramento City Unified and another among 22 districts and county offices of education in Sacramento, Placer, Nevada, Sutter, Yuba, Yolo and El Dorado counties.

They want to build on programs such as the Health Careers Academy at El Dorado High School, the Manufacturing Production Technology Academy at Laguna Creek High School, the Engineering & Design Academy at Hiram Johnson High School, the Biotech Academy at Sheldon High School, the Academy of Culinary Arts at Kennedy High School, the Construction & Design Academy at Luther Burbank High School and more.

In our region, most of the high school career pathway programs need to improve relationships with employers to develop high-quality, work-based learning and with community colleges so high school students can take relevant college-level courses.

In Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Mariposa counties, 21 school districts have teamed with community colleges on an application that focuses on the fields of agriculture, health care, manufacturing, child development, global trade and entrepreneurship, and construction. They’re emphasizing a “dual enrollment” curriculum so high school students can earn college credit for their work.

In California, Steinberg points out, work-based experiences tend to depend on an inspired teacher who has a connection with somebody. The $250 million grant program is an attempt to expand opportunities for high-skill, high-wage and high-growth jobs.

With the exception of the Silicon Valley and a few other places in the state, California’s economy remains in a slow-motion recovery. That’s especially true in much of the Central Valley where unemployment exceeds 13 percent, worse for young people.

California Career Pathways offers a hopeful alternative. Its promise is cause for optimism. Its success could become vital to California’s future.