Can the Swiss VET System Provide Practical Inspiration for Addressing Indiana’s Middle Skills Gap?

Claire Fiddian-Green is the President & CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.


It is no secret that the U.S. struggles with a skills gap. According to a March 2018 report released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Burning Glass Technologies, “surveys of employers routinely find that companies have difficulty finding skilled workers.” This national finding holds true in Indiana, which faces a gap in “middle skill” jobs – i.e., jobs that require more than a high school education but not necessarily a four-year college degree.

There are many factors that contribute to our state’s skills gap, perhaps the most fundamental of which is that too many Hoosier students aren’t mastering math and science skills. Last year’s ISTEP+ scores show that only 59% of students in Grades 3-8 and 37% of students in Grade 10 earned a passing score in math, and only 63% of students in Grades 4 and 6 and 57% of students in Grade 10 earned a passing score in science. These lackluster results are particularly troubling for Indiana’s STEM-driven economy, and beg the question: how can our state continue to thrive if today’s students aren’t well-prepared for tomorrow’s jobs?

That’s why it is encouraging to see the increasing focus at both a national and state level on rethinking our country’s approach to the high school experience and adult training programs. This summer, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos traveled to Switzerland to learn about that country’s internationally renowned vocational education and training (VET) system, where she remarked that “the Swiss approach is one from which we can all learn a great deal.” Organizations like Washington, D.C.-based National Center on Education and the Economy have spent years studying how the Swiss model works and what lessons can be applied in the U.S. by business and education stakeholders. In Indiana, Governor Holcomb’s new Workforce Cabinet and Office of Work-Based Learning & Apprenticeship have been charged with realigning the state’s workforce development resources to ensure Indiana’s labor force is equipped to meet the demands of employers – thereby helping to close the skills gap.

One of the more intriguing ideas Indiana should strongly consider implementing is the Swiss apprenticeship model, which offers three- and four-year apprenticeships to students starting at the age of 15. More than 70 percent of Swiss high school students learn a deliberate combination of technical, professional, organizational and social (i.e., “soft”) skills in three different settings: school, the workplace, and inter-company training centers. One benefit of this hands-on learning approach is a higher level of engagement by young people in their own education, which has resulted in a decline in high school dropouts and better prepared high school graduates.

The key difference between the Swiss and American education systems is that employers play a leading role starting at the secondary education level in developing and delivering a curriculum that is constantly adapting to meet the needs of an evolving economy. The Swiss model is a true public-private partnership that embraces innovation and change, and is undergirded by the belief that “providing every young person with the skills and experiences that are relevant for the labor market is key to the future of Switzerland.”

There’s no question that Indiana needs to improve STEM learning outcomes and address its middle skills gap. Let’s look to Switzerland’s proven VET system for practical ideas about how to better prepare the Hoosier workforce for success – both today and tomorrow.

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