One of the most important conversations taking place in Kenya right now, is the debate on how to create more and better economic opportunities for young Kenyans who have finished their formal education and now want jobs.
An ambitious new project launched recently by Swisscontact and the Hilti Foundation will explore the potential of the Swiss model of vocational training for the Kenyan market. Early indications are promising.
In education as in so much else, nations benefit from studying what others have done to address problems similar to those that they face. And after such study, they can then select from the successful models, some ideas which can be transplanted to meet the unique challenges of each country.
I believe that there may be some useful lessons for Kenya, in the way that the Swiss apprenticeship system has evolved over the years, to become one of the pillars of our economic success, as well as a mechanism for social inclusion.
Kenya is facing a major challenge in creating enough jobs for its youth. Like many countries, Kenya has many highly qualified students but not enough job opportunities.
One thing for which Switzerland is well known is its pragmatism. We, the Swiss have the benefit of living in a country that constantly seeks the right equilibrium between theory and practice, in order to allow all strata of society to thrive. This feature is one of the pillars of the stability of the Swiss political system.
Education and training in Switzerland are also good examples of this pragmatic attitude. Indeed, Switzerland has a flexible and dynamic education system, offering different pathways to young students, considering their competences and their interests, but also the needs of the economy.
Let me briefly outline how that system works. In Switzerland, education is managed by the Cantons, the equivalent of counties in Kenya, and not the central government. However, the system is to a large degree harmonised and similar everywhere in the country. In no way can it be said that a certain Canton provides a superior quality of education than the others.
Mandatory schooling is usually composed of eight years of primary school, and three of middle school. Then, when students are about 15-years-old, they can choose between several possibilities. They have two main options.
The first one is the classical high school path to continue the general studies curriculum. This option usually leads to university studies. The second is to do an apprenticeship, which is more practical and meant to enable the student to learn a specific job, and thus offer a direct path to a career in that field.
The apprenticeship is said to be dual because the formation is undertaken both in school and at work. While the work-related part is performed at the workplace of the employing company, the apprentice also continues to have theoretical classroom training.
In a typical example, an apprentice would spend two days per week in school and three working on the job.
The five most popular occupations for vocational trainings are commercial employee, health care worker, retail clerk, social care worker and IT technician.
The dual system has two particularities, which are especially important because they mark the specificity of the Swiss system and are at the heart of its success.
First, the system is very flexible. The choices made by 15-year-old students are not necessarily definitive as there are numerous ways to switch paths afterwards.
Even if someone does an apprenticeship as an electrician, he or she still has the possibility of going to university without starting everything from scratch. This is crucial, because it takes away the pressure for young students having to make a definitive choice. It also encourages them to choose the route of apprenticeships. Honestly, who among us knew exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life at the age of 15?
The second particularity of the Swiss dual system is that apprenticeships are an integral part of the Swiss education system. They are highly regarded in Swiss society and not perceived as the “smaller sister” of a university career. This respect also translates economically. Apprenticeships offer job opportunities with good working conditions, including in terms of salary.
And let me emphasise that the high value attached to vocational training both at the social and the economic level are absolutely crucial for its success.
The value of apprenticeship in Switzerland can be demonstrated statistically since today, more than two-thirds of Swiss students choose apprenticeships after mandatory schooling, instead of classical high school.
Many of the top businesspeople and political leaders in Switzerland are former apprentices. Sergio Ermotti, until recently CEO of UBS, the biggest bank in the country, was an apprentice and did not go to high school. The same goes for Ueli Maurer, the Swiss Finance Minister and President of the country in 2019.
The success of apprenticeships enables young people to acquire practical skills in addition to general knowledge, and to be ready for the job market. This success notably translates in the fact that Switzerland has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world.
There is also added value in the dual apprenticeship programme. It can be clearly demonstrated that the economic value of the work done by the apprentices significantly outweighs the costs of their training.
In short, this means that the system benefits companies in real terms. Not only in the long term, but even during the very years they are training their apprentices.