Restoring occupational pride

SWISS AMBASSADOR to Slovakia Josef Aregger believes that a well-tuned vocational school system is one of the ways to tackle the lack of qualified labour and restore pride to certain occupations.

A train crosses the Landwasserviadukt bridge near the eastern Swiss town of Filisur.A train crosses the Landwasserviadukt bridge near the eastern Swiss town of Filisur. (Source: Reuters)

SWISS AMBASSADOR to Slovakia Josef Aregger believes that a well-tuned vocational school system is one of the ways to tackle the lack of qualified labour and restore pride to certain occupations.

“Professionals have a very high social status in my country,” Aregger said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator. “Someone who chooses vocational training is not looked upon as someone who was unable to get into university.”

Aregger is also an ardent advocate of foreign language training, which he believes increases tolerance toward other cultures and has proven economic benefits.

“Slovakia has a big advantage because it used to be a trilingual society that provided an excellent foundation for prosperity in the region,” he said.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Nations across Europe have been facing a lack of qualified labour. Even in post-communist countries, which still struggle with higher unemployment rates, it is becoming increasingly difficult to fill some jobs. Slovakia has also been trying to re-shape its education system so that it better responds to the needs of business. Has Switzerland encountered this problem? And are there experiences in your country that could perhaps be useful to Slovakia?

Josef Aregger (JA): It is hard to advise another country in the area of education reform; I can only describe the system we have in Switzerland, and maybe one or other parts of it could serve as a source of inspiration. In Switzerland, we have a widely diversified education system but we do not, for instance, have a national ministry of education. Instead, education is the responsibility of cantons (regions), which can much more closely monitor the needs of their region. Universities are also cantonal, while at the national level we do have a technical university, the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, which is a sort of MIT of Europe.

But when it comes to training for jobs and professions, firms and businesses take considerable responsibility for the training of their apprentices. By doing so, apprentices become used not only to the working environment, but to many other aspects of being a skilled tradesperson, for example working in a team or responding to the orders and instructions of their superiors – or, as we call them, the ‘masters’. These are people authorised by the government to teach apprentices. In practice this means that it is not enough for businesses to have good carpenters, for example, who think they might be able to teach apprentices; those carpenters must, in fact, pass state exams in order to be entitled to do the training. The standards that anyone who is to be granted a diploma must fulfil are defined in a law dating back to 1930. This law guarantees, despite regional differences, standards valid across the country. This system in fact implants into apprentices some sense of personal relationship with the company, and helps novices to identify with their jobs and the professional environment of the company.

TSS: Labour market watchers and education professionals have been warning that Slovakia lacks this kind of interconnection between business and training. Besides, training for certain occupations has drastically declined.

JA: One of the reasons is that entrepreneurs themselves aren’t used to taking enough responsibility, perhaps because they are not aware of the needs and advantages that such a system offers. The roots of the Swiss system of vocational training in fact reach back to the late 19th century, the period of industrialisation, when companies started to realise that they were no longer really competitive and that they needed to invest more in training their own employees, without which they would not be able to improve the quality of products. They started systematic training of young workers through apprenticeships.

Of course, the system does not end with apprenticeship: there is still additional training. And there is not only the so-called dual system, consisting of the workplace and vocational school, but also a triad system, which comprises the workplace, vocational school and training centres serving a number of firms. It means that when the firms realise that they still need additional training, they can get it through these training centres.

TSS: Does such a well-tuned vocational training system eliminate problems, for example a lack of qualified labour, in Switzerland?

JA: Thanks to this system, the lack of qualified labour is perhaps less urgent than in other countries. However, we still encounter problems because the vocational training does not adapt quickly enough to the changing needs of the labour market. Of course, Slovakia has a different economic situation. Switzerland also has lower unemployment than many other countries, currently below 3 percent. If you look at this in the light of the fact that we also have more than one million foreigners working in Switzerland, it is an extremely good result.

When you look at the youth unemployment rate here in Slovakia, it is pretty high, along with the jobless rate for adults who are not well-enough trained. I have seen some figures which show that in the western part of Switzerland, where the apprentice system is less well-rooted - it exists there too, but is not as developed as in the German-speaking part of the country – there is noticeably higher unemployment among young people.

In short, if you take the French- and Italian-speaking parts - collectively, Latin Switzerland - which form about 20 percent of the country, dual education there is about 15 percent lower than in the German-speaking part. In the French-speaking part, unemployment among 15- to 29-year-olds between 1992 and 1996 was about 2.5 percent higher than in the German-speaking part. It really shows the impact of vocational training.

TSS: But then there is another challenge, which seems to be emerging here: young people do not seem to be very interested in apprenticeships or in certain types of jobs, in particular technical ones. How does that compare with Switzerland?

JA: You will find this interesting: in Switzerland we have the lowest level of university education in Europe. At the time I studied at university I think only about 10 percent of the Swiss went to universities. Now the number is about 20 percent. The most important reason is that the social status of professionals is very high in my country.

Someone who chooses vocational training is not looked upon as someone who was unable to get into university. No, the person simply chose apprenticeship and opted for additional training after he or she had learned a trade and knew something about it. When you think about people who have never really learned any profession profoundly, and felt sort of lost because they did not know what exactly they were doing, you simply have to appreciate the option of becoming a real specialist in something concrete. In Switzerland, the person can proudly declare: I am a carpenter and I have a proof of it. It does make a difference.

Then you also have to look at labour productivity. Imagine that you pay someone five euros for an hour’s work. The person does it and goes home but you find out that the job was not well done and you have to bring him back. You might end up paying three times as much for the job. The question is then, what is cheaper: cheaper labour or more expensive, but nevertheless well-done, labour?

TSS: Switzerland is a world leader in the area of innovation and linking research and academia with business, according to the European Innovation Scoreboard 2007, which compares 37 countries in the area of innovation. Slovakia still lags behind in this area.

JA: Investment in research is extremely important. When you look at big companies, for example pharmaceutical producers, it is clear that they cannot do without these investments. But very small companies are also very innovative. This happens when you have intelligent people learning their jobs properly, and then getting additional training in their area of specialisation. They come up with new products.

I remember the story of an entrepreneur who had a very small outlet somewhere in the eastern part of Switzerland. He was producing ball-points for pens and he actually ended up exporting his products across the world. It all came out from a very small entity, which was not the result of university training but rather vocational training; a result of a diversified system.

I am also not saying that after you finish your vocational training you cannot go to university. You can go to a technical school, specialised technical institutes and then also go to university. The system remains open. But, certainly, professional training needs to be given social recognition.

TSS: Switzerland in fact tops a chart of the most environmentally friendly countries compiled and published by Newsweek, based on an ecological performance index of 149 countries. What makes Switzerland such an environmentally friendly country?

JA: It has to do with the standards of the country. Generally, if a society is wealthy, it can pay more attention to having a clean environment. Another aspect is that we have developed from a rural society, where farmers are closely connected to the environment.

Also, for Switzerland, tourism is extremely important and Switzerland would be hardly attractive to tourists if the environment were not clean and not being continuously protected.

The fourth aspect is that the country is densely populated, which has led to certain policy measures. We today have 80-100 percent recovery of waste water, which means that no waste water goes into the ground or lakes any more.

Slovakia has to progress step by step. But the country is lucky that it has not really destroyed much of its environment. When you look at the eastern part of the country, biodiversity is probably higher than in many areas of Switzerland, since Slovakia did not aggressively use fertilizers. You have beautiful summer meadows because agriculture here has not been extremely intensive.

TSS: In Switzerland are children already being born into environmentally aware families?
JA: Kids usually do not throw anything on the ground in Switzerland. Take my family: I grew up in Luzern and my family has stayed in Luzern, where they feel responsible for what they have and where they are.

A centralistic regime as it existed in Slovakia until 1989 does little to instil a sense of responsibility among individuals for the common good and hence for their local environment.

It is interesting that communism always used to talk about the common good but in fact achieved the opposite: people retreated into their private sphere and did not care much about what was beyond their apartment door. Yet post-communist societies too are developing a sense of responsibility for what is commonly shared.

TSS: You once said that the future of Europe is in multilingualism and that in Switzerland, everybody speaks more than one language. How can nations or countries achieve such multilingualism? What are the main benefits?

AJ: Switzerland has always been multicultural. When Switzerland was created as a federal state, different parts spoke different languages and to keep the country unified there was almost an obligation by each to learn the language of the others. In the German-speaking part, French was really a must. In recent times English has also gained dominance. In Zurich, English rather than French is now the first foreign language - which I think is a mistake, because everybody learns English anyway.

Also, the export economy has been very important for modern Swiss society, which has pushed people to learn languages. Of course, so-called “high” or official German had to be learned because we speak a dialect which is almost like a language of its own. Once you start learning languages it is then easier to go to the next one.

Learning languages is always a great advantage because it opens your mind and makes you more tolerant of other cultures; economically, I also find it an extremely positive feature. But Slovakia has a big advantage as well, when it comes to your cultural past as a trilingual society, which used to be an excellent foundation for prosperity in the region.

TSS: The Swiss embassy was involved in a conference "German as a Technical Language in the Border Regions" focused on the importance of German. German is the mother tongue of almost 100 million Europeans. Has the status of German changed in your opinion? Why, for example, should young Slovaks study German along with English?

JA: German will remain important here. After 1989, the large global companies, even German ones, which came to Slovakia, employed different nationalities and made English their company language. In this sense, the companies that came to Slovakia have not increased the use of German. On the other hand, the region, especially around Bratislava, is growing closer. Austrians are growing close to Slovaks and vice versa, while most visitors to this country are German-speaking, which will maintain German’s importance.

When you look at the investment flowing into the country, the highest volume comes from Germany and Austria, and therefore Slovakia’s business partners will certainly remain German-speaking to a great extent. I am confident that German will remain an important language in the region. If you go to an old library, about 50 percent of the books are in German, I guess; if you study history and culture or even science, you always come across German sources.

To learn one language is simply not enough and I do recommend any young Slovak learn German first and then English, since young people will learn English anyway.

TSS: Slovakia has undergone a massive decentralisation of its state administration. However, the public does not seem to be aware that the regions now have much more power and importance. Switzerland in fact has a strongly decentralised system where regional units have strong authorities. What are the main advantages, in your opinion, of such a decentralised system?

JA: It will take time for people to become aware of the importance of the regions. One of the reasons is that people do not have a sense of local identity. Of course, they say ‘I am from Banská Bystrica’, but in terms of being a citizen they do not feel that it is a part of their identity. Yet, I do not have a recipe for how to change this situation. I can only tell you how it works in Switzerland, where the country’s whole history is based on people’s local identity, as well as their political identity.

When somebody aspires to make a career at a national level, the person needs to start in his own village and be active in local political bodies. Then he or she could become an executive of his village and take a step towards the cantonal parliament, and then maybe play a role in the cantonal government.

Only after taking that route can the person enter the national parliament. You traditionally go through all the levels of local government.

The local identity of people, in a political sense, has been destroyed in manifold ways here in Slovakia. First of all, the cities here were traditionally multicultural societies; not only Bratislava, but also Žilina – then called Silina – which used to be Slovak, German, and even Hungarians lived there. Look at Košice: it was the same situation there. After World War II, not only the Germans and many Hungarians were expelled, but the Jews had already been deported; what followed straight away was the centralised communist government.

Cities were composed differently and were populated by a new workforce. The newcomers did not have a local identity – and nor did they have a political identity, since that had been destroyed.

But slowly and steadily this identity will grow and people will identify themselves more with local affairs.

General facts

Political system:Confederation, 26 cantons


Total area: 41, 290 sq kilometres

Population: 7,581,520

The Swiss Confederation was founded in 1291 as a defensive alliance among three cantons.

Switzerland's sovereignty and neutrality have long been honoured by the major European powers, and the country was not involved in either of the two World Wars.

Source: CIA Factbook

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