Special Series Report: From the Alps to Appalachia 2022, Part One

In the United States, traditional universities, community and technical colleges, and vocational training are frequently viewed as competing interests for postsecondary students and funding. These differing pathways often silo prospective students and adult learners into distinct routes with little to no chance for progression or permeability. However, high-performing education systems more often view them as complementary partners – along with the private sector. Allowing students to pursue multiple educational and training pathways without encountering dead-ends provide numerous opportunities for crossover.* In this changing and competitive economy, opportunities for students to transition from vocational or technical training to applied or traditional degree programs – and vice versa – are imperative. The blending of academic higher and technical education also allows students the opportunity to “earn while they learn” and gain both practical and theoretical experience via targeted and workforce-needs-based apprenticeships.

While national examples highlight or implement individual model systems, policymakers may wish to look abroad to better understand high-performing vocational education and apprenticeship reforms. Across the Atlantic, Switzerland – formally the Swiss Confederation – is widely considered the “gold standard” of international vocational education systems and apprenticeships. Despite not distinguishing itself as the current world-class vocational and professional education and training (VPET) system known today until implementing a series of reforms in the 1960s and 1970s, the Swiss vocational education model is considered the preeminent high-performing system – according to a Harvard University comparative study of international vocational education systems. This high-performing system has enabled the nation to close the skills gap and maintain low youth unemployment and underemployment while establishing itself as a global leader in innovation – despite being slightly smaller in population than Virginia. This model, and the permeability of education pathways, have enhanced lifelong learning in Switzerland, ensuring it continues to have a future-ready workforce. 

This CSG South Special Series Report is the first in a series exploring comparative approaches to vocational and professional education and training. This report examines how structuring a dual school- and work-based approach, featuring complimentary postsecondary systems, can open multiple pathways for students, allow academic and career success, improve lifelong learning, and increase opportunities for impactful apprenticeships in high-need vocations. By examining the Swiss VPET system and highlighting promising models in select CSG South member states, lawmakers may adopt promising strategies to create a high-performing, Swiss-inspired system in their respective states. 

High-performing vocational education and training systems are essential to prepare the next generation of skilled workers, particularly as states recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Switzerland has continued to invest in its vocational education and apprenticeship program, cementing it as a vital tool in its economic recovery.

For the U.S., the impact of educational and experiential disruptions on the youth workforce necessitates a change in structures to ensure that – like the Swiss – our future workforce is educated, trained, and productive during both the economic downturn and recovery.4 Investments in partnered work- and classbased learning will ensure the strength and resiliency of the future workforce.

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