The Future of Vocational Education

The Future of Vocational Education

Would the European high school apprenticeship model work in the United States?


In Iowa today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled the Obama administration’s new vocational education plan. The president proposes to revise the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act by investing an additional $1 billion to increase partnerships between high schools, colleges and employers, with the goal of directing students toward high-need industries such as engineering and healthcare.

But the choice of venue for the announcement—the Des Moines Area Community College—underscores a critique of the president’s education and jobs agenda aired on both the right and left: that it focuses too much on post–high school occupational training, and not enough on introducing younger adolescents to the world of work outside the classroom. Indeed, the administration’s policy blueprint states that high school students enrolled in career and technical education programs must still achieve “mastery of the core academic content required of all students.” In many Western European nations, on the other hand, the high school curriculum is significantly differentiated for teenagers depending on whether they are headed to a liberal arts university, a technical college, or into the workforce.

In a new book, Schooling in the Workplace, Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future argues the United States should adopt a Swiss-style vocational education system, in which students in their last two years of high school have the option of participating in highly structured workplace apprenticeships, working for pay several days per week and spending the rest of the time in the classroom. “We have a 22 percent youth unemployment rate right now, compared to 5 percent in the Netherlands or Switzerland,” Hoffman told The Nation. “Among that 22 percent are young people who are going to be permanently scarred, and that’s damaging to the human psyche. We don’t think about what we can do to help the young people in our charge discover the role of work in our lives.”

In the following interview, I talk with Hoffman about why vocational education is so controversial in the United States, what role the liberal arts should play and how emphasizing career training might change the teaching profession. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I was fascinated by your idea of providing older teens—especially “the forgotten half” that will not attend a four-year college—with an easier “transition to adulthood.” You describe upper secondary school students in Switzerland working behind the counter in a cell phone shop for school credit, which will certainly horrify a lot of advocates of a college-prep curriculum. Can you talk about why you think this type of “transitional” work is so important?

In Switzerland there are whole stores run by kids, so there are multiple jobs including management, repair, all the technical jobs, plus customer service. If we have a situation in the United States where only about 20 percent of 26-year-olds have any credential, we need something for people to do to get them from 16 to 20 without landing in jail, on welfare or on the street; something that gives them a structure and lets them figure out their potential and interests.

This guy working in customer service at the cell phone shop was going to get a retail certificate in meeting the national standard. And whether he is going to make the leap forward to become a cell phone designer, who knows? But being in a setting where adults have goals, having a structure from age 16 to 19, seems like a much more positive option than what many young adults experience in our country. This Swiss person has an income. He gets paid anywhere from 800 to 1,000 euros per month. He has to demonstrate his competencies in sales. He will have the equivalent of really a year or two of community college, because he was also going to school two days per week.

What about students learning how to debate the big ideas in literature and in politics? What about gaining exposure to great art and writing about it?

In the United States, we need a much stronger set of academic demands up to age 16.  But for the large mass of young people who are muddling along between 16 and 22, trying not to land in jail, or be unemployed or on the street—or even just going from job to job—you might have to ask: What would be a good enough system? And we know people who pay taxes and have jobs and have healthcare are much more likely to vote, to use social services and to participate in democracy. As for the debate of the big ideas, the number of students who actually get to do that is relatively small. I don’t like the idea of giving it up, but it’s probably unfortunately very much class-based in this country anyhow.

You really like the Swiss system. What one or two aspects of it do you think are most realistic for American states to implement?

Volkswagon is starting a European-style apprenticeship program in Tennessee, but for high school graduates. The first thing that has to happen is employers have to be able to see there is some self-interest in engaging with young people in the workplace. That’s a very tough sell. You probably have to start with more internships and apprenticeships at the community college level than in high school, because most people in this country just don’t believe that 16-year-olds can be productive workers—though there is plenty of evidence they certainly can be.

The second thing, which is maybe boring but most important, is the combination of employer and government infrastructure to support employers in taking in young people. I was just in North Carolina talking about this stuff with business leaders, and they really sort of got it. The Swiss government particularly invests a great deal in analysis of jobs to figure out what competencies should exist. They invest in initial workplace training [for apprenticeship hosts], because small businesses can’t do this on their own. It’s a whole intermediary infrastructure, plus a research and support structure shared between employers and the government, which makes this possible. There are just a few institutions or non-profits, like workforce investment boards, that do this in the United States.

You are a fan of “dual systems” in which students learn theoretical subjects in school, say two days per week, and more practical ones in the workplace three days per week. But does emphasizing practical learning, as the German and Swiss systems do, make academic high school teaching a less prestigious or desirable profession? Making teaching more elite is a major goal of American education reform, and it seems like de-emphasizing the traditional classroom might have certain adverse effects on teaching that your book doesn’t acknowledge.

I get where you’re coming from, because you’re coming from a US context. But this is not even a question in the European countries. In Finland, as you know, there are ten applicants for every place in teachers’ college, and that’s whether you teach in a vocational or an academic program.

It’s actually harder to recruit teachers for vocational systems than for academic ones. Except in a few countries with really highly regarded systems, “vocational” still carries a stigma. And despite all the good things I say about the vocational system, I only know a couple of families in Europe [among my social and professional peers] who sent their kids to the vocational system. Their kids become economists, say, like they are.

Isn’t that somewhat disturbing, because it suggests the vocational track really is the track for working-class kids?

It’s not disturbing at all. Income inequality is much greater in the United States than in European countries. There is much greater mobility in the European countries than here. Secondly, my view is that I would much rather have a 3 percent youth unemployment rate and most young people having a job, than have the bifurcated system we have in the United States, [in which some kids go to four-year college, and the rest face a 22 percent unemployment rate].

The really strong countries have pathways from vocational education straight through to technical colleges. An interesting data point from Switzerland is that 42 percent of the students who get fours or fives on PISA exams [the highest scores] enter the vocational system. That’s because they know that if you want to be an engineer, work in IT or any of these high-tech jobs, you’re going to be much more likely to get a job after real work experience. In Norway, one young woman I met did a university degree in graphic design and then discovered she wanted to go back and do a vocational program, because she needed work experience.

We behave as though nobody needs to learn to work. We behave as if somehow education alone will launch you into a career, although we know almost everyone is going to two or four-year colleges because they want to get a job. So why one would think that between 16 and 19 years old it isn’t good to get some work experience, I don’t know.

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