Colorado delegation gets firsthand look at Swiss vocational model

By Tim Heaton | Feb 02, 2016

Imagine a system where young Coloradans can enter the workforce prepared to meet existing openings. Imagine where education and training is centered on the skills and competencies that are actually in demand. In this system, the training provided is aligned with the anticipated job openings as projected by industry partners, and employers know new hires are knowledgeable in the critical aspects of their open positions because industry helped train the students. This system would combine the teaching of theory and practice in a dual track where industry is an active producer within the education systems as opposed to only a consumer.

Governor Hickenlooper and the Business Experiential Learning (BEL) Commission he appointed in 2015 spent last week visiting the Switzerland vocational and professional education and training system.

This group of 50 leaders developed a shared vision for experiential learning that will change education as we know it in Colorado forever. As BEL Commission Chairman Noel Ginsburg said, "This reform will not be quick or easy, but nothing this powerful ever is."

Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, accompanied a group of 50 leaders, including business leaders, Dr. Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, Dr. Steve Jordan, president of Metro State University, and the presidents of Community College of Denver and Front Range Community College. Also represented were Cherry Creek and Denver Public schools.

The Colorado delegation witnessed firsthand the success of the Swiss model where two-thirds of all young students coming out of compulsory education (K-10) enroll in vocational training.

Here in Colorado, we often think of vocational training as programs such as welding, auto mechanics, machining and other trades. In Switzerland, vocational training covers 230 occupations in demand.

The delegation saw a training program for young bankers and financial experts. They met with 16 year-old students who were actively participating in apprenticeships within SwissCom, the nation's leading tele-communications company. This example provides a clear view to the reason behind the success of the Swiss model. The Swiss vocational model is a dual-track system with part-time classroom instruction at a vocational training center, and part-time work within a host company through an apprenticeship.

In the Swiss dual-track system, students attend courses at vocational schools on a part-time basis. In the classroom, the students develop technical, methodological and social skills while learning the technical theory needed to perform the actual occupational tasks. Put simply, the courses are tailored to suit the requirements of the given job. Most importantly the Swiss model provides students with solid professional competencies and open the door for lifelong learning.

Under the Swiss model, the companies can participate in curriculum development to assure the students are learning the appropriate skills both in the classroom and in the apprenticeships. These apprenticeships also provide a great opportunity for the students. In addition to providing real-life training and the opportunity to earn and learn, more than 50 percent of the students in apprenticeships go on to college.

While in Switzerland, the delegation toured businesses taking full advantage of this innovative approach to learning. Two such companies include Mikron, a precision machining company, and Pilatus, an aircraft company. Both companies have growing operations in Colorado. More importantly, both companies are now working with Department of Labor and Employment officials to launch apprenticeships in Colorado. The BEL Commission, working with the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance (CAMA), the Department of Labor, Mikron and Pilatus are looking to launch Colorado's own version of the Swiss model.

Their vision is an integrated, work-based education and training system that ensures all students have the skills necessary to secure good jobs and provide Colorado businesses with a viable and expanding workforce. To make the vision a reality, business and industry must become an integral part of the education process by allowing their facilities to become the classrooms and by providing necessary practical training in collaboration with education institutions. This will ensure that students in Colorado have opportunities to engage in work-based learning and that every Colorado business has access to a talent pipeline built by hands-on experience and training within a given industry.

A lot has been written about the lack of skilled workers to fill open positions in just the manufacturing sector. For example, over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled, but the skills gap is expected to result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled. This is at a time when our youth unemployment (15-24) is 14 percent. While the lack of skilled workforce is a sign of dysfunction within our education and business sectors, it signals an opportunity for reform.

In order to understand Colorado manufacturing workforce needs, CAMA needs your input. Please take a few minutes and answer this 10 question survey about your manufacturing company's workforce development needs. Your time is appreciated and your input is essential to this process.

Tim Heaton is president of the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance. Reach him at