By Isobel Leybold-Johnson
The attendance of United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at a vocational education conference in Switzerland is a sign the Trump administration still wants to collaborate over the Swiss apprenticeship model.
“There is much to learn from our European counterparts as they continue to advance education options centred on the needs of individual students and focused on their ability to succeed in the modern economy,” said DeVos in a statement ahead of the third International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPET).
Her stop at the event in Winterthur is part of a ten-day tour to learn about education and vocational training in Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
She continued the theme of learning from others in her keynote address to the congress, pointing out that apprenticeships in Switzerland were not just for welders and carpenters, which is common the US, but include many options in every sector of the economy, including finance, law and healthcare.
Apprentice to CEO
“I was so intrigued to learn… that the CEO of UBS, Sergio Ermotti, started his career as an apprentice… that’s not commonplace in America. But perhaps it should be,” she said.
She went on to say that President Trump had made apprenticeship expansion a priority. In March, the Trump administration for example announced a multi-million boost for apprenticeship and career/technical education programmes.
A national task force, of which she is a co-chair, has also been set up. “Our charter was to explore ways to empower Americans with options to earn and learn and ways to encourage the private sector and higher education to advance this important opportunity for our nation’s economic future,” added DeVos.
Not everyone was happy about the visit of the controversial minister though. The local branch of the leftwing Social Democratic Party issued an open letter on June 1 to the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERIk) opposing the invitation, saying DeVos’ policies were at odds with Switzerland’s. DeVos has, for example, been criticised for not having any experience of public schools before her slimly voted-in appointment link last year.
Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann, whose remit includes education and who gave the welcoming address at the congress, told swissinfo.ch that DeVos’ visit was important because “it is a demonstration which tells us that the US wants to know what Switzerland is doing in this digitalization context”.
He added that collaboration between the two nations had been ongoing for some time on the issue.
Digitalization is raising questions about how vocational education and training systems need to adapt to teach the skills needed on the labour market, the minister said in his congress speech. Switzerland’s dual track system – of vocational school and on-the-job training – and its adaptability were the focus of discussions with both DeVos and Singapore’s education minister, Ong Ye Kung, who also spoke at the congress.
On whether the Swiss vocational system was still considered a role model for the US, Schneider-Ammann said: “Yes, that’s what the former administration told us and that’s what we hear with the actual administration as well”.
“Two thirds of Swiss go into vocational education. They get the education shaped exactly to what the market expects, in other words: the entrepreneurs invest in their future and they shape the next generation of specialists. That’s what the US professionals understand and that’s why they are trying to see and learn, and maybe a little bit to copy, as well. I’m happy to see that our system is getting this recognition.”