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'Made in Switzerland'

Broad Base, Core Competitiveness


Broad Base, Core Competitiveness


With the world's highest production value, Swiss industry must be doing something right. A broad manufacturing base and a solid two-track vocational education system may be the secrets to Swiss success.



Broad Base, Core Competitiveness

By Isabella Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 484 )

The most enviable thing about Switzerland today, aside from its per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$40,000, is its unemployment rate of less than four percent. This achievement is the result of the worldwide image of high added value inherent in "Made in Switzerland."

"History has consistently shown that the most important distinction between rich and poor nations lies in the breadth of their manufacturing capabilities," argues Ha-Joon Chang, author of the South Korean bestseller Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism.

"Switzerland is not a nation that relies on dirty money stashed in secret bank accounts to get by. It's the world's most industrialized nation. The production value of the Swiss manufacturing sector has since 2002 been the world's highest, 24 percent higher than that of number two Japan, 2.2 times that of the United States and 34 times that of China, the so-called 'world's factory,'" Chang says, noting the crucial role high-end skills play in a nation's sustained development.

Switzerland's vocational and technical education is responsible for the core competitiveness of Swiss industry.

Industry Deeply Involved in Education

Switzerland's vocational education is a two-track system, divided between work and school. Students generally split their five-day school week between two days in the classroom and three days in the office or factory. Around 30 percent of Swiss companies offer internships, providing guidance in learning on-the-job skills.

"Education is not for fun; study is to get ready for work, for life," says Hans Hess, president of Swissmem – the Swiss association for mechanical and electrical engineering industries – encapsulating the basic Swiss attitude toward education. If you have a job, you can have a life, Hess asserts.

Businesses, trade associations and schools collaborate on development of curricula, which are revised every five years to keep pace with the demands of industry.

Diverse Vocational Curricula

Subject areas of study have continued to expand over the decades and now range from the machinery, engineering and handicraft skills required in traditional industry to commercial word processing, public relations and artistic skills required in modern service industries. Recent additions, including medical care, social services and other subjects required in today's aging society, have expanded course options to more than 240.

Maintaining Flexibility

Although Swiss culture is not overly worshipful of higher education credentials, there still remains considerable pressure on teenage students in deciding whether to enter the workforce. So Swiss authorities have allowed vocational education to retain a degree of flexibility.

After four years of classes, vocational students may elect to continue working or go on to take an examination to receive federal certification and continue on to university.

Franziska Schwarz, director of international relations for the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology, is herself a prime example.

"As a teenager, like many kids, I really didn't want to study anymore," Schwarz says of the year she chose to enter vocational school, learn commercial word processing and become a secretary. She hadn't anticipated that her experience in the office would excite in her a new desire for learning.

"But in the workplace you have many different role models," she recalls. Seeing the different experiences of older work colleagues and the choices they had made prompted her to cast aside the fickleness of youth as she gradually developed an interest in information technology. Thereafter, Schwarz went on to work part-time while going on to complete her Ph.D.

Exporting Vocational Education to India

Currently, 10 percent of Swiss government funding for vocational education goes to promotion. Furthermore, Switzerland has made its educational orientation into an exportable commodity. Last year, Switzerland began exporting its vocational education system to India, providing training on how to implement its two-track system.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy