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College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

School-to-Work, Employers, And Personal Values

By Samuel Halperin — March 12, 1997 9 min read

If its critics are to be believed, the fledgling American school-to-work movement is a nefarious plot by Big Government, abetted by willful or unwitting industrialists, to control the academic content of learning and dictate the occupational futures of American youths. What’s more, opponents from both extremes of the political spectrum contend, our schoolchildren are in danger of becoming pawns in a computer-driven national labor-market information system that will funnel them into whatever jobs the economy needs filled.

This Orwellian prospect flies in the face of compelling success stories from many school-to-work programs here, as well as from long-standing efforts in other democracies. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a healthy blending of school-based learning and hands-on exposure to the world of work. School-to-work champions can muster persuasive evidence that experience in actual workplaces, and not just classroom instruction, helps young people acquire essential job skills along with the habits of thought and behavior that underlie them.

Instead of regarding school-to-work efforts as key elements of genuine school reform, critics from the political right see a government-directed scheme to control the minds, the values, and ultimately the occupations and earnings of American workers--all of which will allegedly subordinate family values to the imperatives of the economy. For its part, too, the anti-capitalist political left envisages generations of human automatons and worker bees, brainwashed to serve the needs of corporate capitalism in cahoots with government bureaucracies. No longer capable of independent thought and self-realization, our young people are to become little more than cogs in the nation’s industrial and economic machinery.

The gap between these baleful predictions and ground-level reality came into sharp focus during recent study missions to Europe and Israel. There, as we are beginning to see in the United States, enlightened businesses and supportive government policies are enabling young people to experience the best of both worlds: high-quality academic learning and practical experience in the workplace that reinforces classroom study.

Several relevant examples demonstrate persuasively that critics from both sides of the political spectrum are plain wrong.

At ABB (Asea Brown Boveri) in Baden, Switzerland, high-school-age apprentices in the giant Swiss-Swedish engineering firm study in a state-approved and partially state-financed high school located on the factory’s premises. When American visitors asked what qualities are essential for success in the workplace and in nonworking life, ABB student responses included: personal competence, self-discipline, independence, creativity (imagination and problem-solving), team effort (social competence, solidarity, communication skills), flexibility, focus on satisfying the needs of customers and colleagues, honesty, and loyalty.

In Zurich, we met with trainers and graduates of the youth-apprenticeship program of the Union Bank of Switzerland. Like its industrial neighbor ABB, this leading Swiss bank has been “training” student workers for over 125 years. What kinds of skills and values does UBS look for in admission to, and completion of, its four-year program? The composite response from both trainer-coaches and graduates: self-initiative, effective team player, ability to concentrate, decisionmaking ability, communication skills, flexibility, professional appearance, good grades in secondary school, staying power, enjoying people. At a cost to the Union Bank of Switzerland of as much as $23,000 per apprentice per year, over and above what the state pays for secondary education, the apprenticeship program enjoys high prestige with students, parents, and the public at large. (Here, as elsewhere in Europe, requests for enrollment are often triple or more the number of available slots, especially in the more competitive professions.) Moreover, the trend is to ever higher job qualifications, more postsecondary academic specialization, and systematic follow-up through advanced learning opportunities. Indeed, there is now talk in the financial-services industry of creating a “University for Applied Science.”

At the Julius Blum firm, a precision manufacturer of cabinet hardware in Bregenz, Austria, the company’s training philosophy is exemplified by two mottoes: “Never underestimate the capabilities of our youth. Rather, find out what they are, and utilize them in helping to create a successful adult” and “A positive role model is the best way to form a young mind.”

In the classrooms of schools associated with these employers, we never once observed the bars, metal detectors, or graffiti so common in American high schools.

Blum’s 22 full-time and 11 part-time trainers serve the needs of 130 apprentices who, while completing their fourth year of combined schooling and on-the-job learning at age 19 or 20, earn up to $1,700 a month. Students are offered free Saturday-morning tutoring, a physical-fitness program, and first-aid instruction, as well as bonuses for “personality development” (for example, $10 monthly for not smoking, $15 for “proper conduct” in auto traffic). Unlike other youth-apprenticeship programs, Blum’s downplays a written contract defining roles for students, parents, and employer. The entire relationship, believes the firm, is built instead on mutual trust. Without trust, no contract is enforceable.

In the city of Bregenz’s employer-backed public high school, where many of the apprentices study, and in Blum’s own training center, students work on state-of-the-art equipment because, as the firm’s educational director says, “We want our students to have the very best technology; if the equipment in the plant is better than in the schools, they will look down on schools.” Far from being deprived of independence and personal autonomy, students take from the company’s value system the message that “the computer shouldn’t be smarter than the computer operator; faster, not smarter.” Like other firms we visited, Blum’s leaders practice what they preach: “Smart workers are our best asset.”

Overall, the Austrian manufacturer has graduated more than 500 students, with only one dropout. The firm has recently opened a high school apprenticeship program with neighboring companies based on the tech-prep curriculum at its U.S. plant in Stanley, N.C. It will be interesting to see whether the same high standards and performance can be successfully transplanted in the New World.

At three middle-sized Austrian firms--world-famous crystal manufacturer Swarovski in Wattens, Zumtobel Lighting in Dornbirn, ski-lift and car-park manufacturer Doppelmayer in Wolfurt--and their cooperating high schools, we met industrialists who, while under financial pressure to reduce costs, proudly told us that their investment in apprenticeship and their adherence to national standards substantially exceeded the minimum requirements arrived at in negotiations with the central government and local authorities--and that the added cost was well worth it.

For these firms, and others we visited in Europe and Israel, success in quality export markets is essential to survival. They know training is expensive, but believe it is the only way they can compete and win in world markets.

In the classrooms of schools associated with these and other employers, we never once observed the bars, metal detectors, or graffiti so common in American high schools. On the contrary, schools were characterized by quiet corridors and students absorbed in their work. Moreover, it was clear that what Europeans call “environmental responsibility” is widespread in the schools. Students are responsible for the cleanliness of their schools, for recycling, and for energy conservation.

When asked whether they would prefer either more time in classrooms and less in the plants, or more in the plants and less in schools, Austrian and German students, to our surprise, complained mildly about the heavy demands placed on them, but argued strongly that the present mix of experiences was the right one.

In Israel, as in much of Western Europe, high-tech industrial exports are literally the lifeblood of the society. There, the Manufacturers Association of Israel, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, has embarked on an ambitious program to expose all Israeli students to “Think Industry,” an interdisciplinary educational project teaching “entrepreneurship and industrial thinking.” Seven Think Industry curricula have been developed for grades 1-12 in both Hebrew and Arabic. School classes are also brought to five employer-supported regional centers, where students mingle with industry mentors and perform hands-on experiments with state-of-the-art teaching equipment.

Europeans practice the belief that work and the workplace can contribute powerfully to the development of autonomous and effective human beings.

And just what is the “industrial thinking” that Israeli manufacturers seek to inculcate in the young? In the words of the curriculum, it includes: “education for values--work, responsibility, precision, openness to criticism, professionalism, and a constant quest for quality.”

“These values are to be achieved,” the curriculum goes on to say, “by teaching teamwork and interpersonal communication ... thinking skills--creative thinking, inventive thinking, logical thinking, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities ... learning skills--the ability to acquire basic knowledge, to build on existing knowledge, and to access new sources of information ... connecting the student to real-life situations ... intertwining thinking, values, and knowledge ... teaching entrepreneurship--taking the initiative to develop new products and marketing strategies, to identify problems and find original solutions for them.”

What is interesting and compelling about the educational and training values embodied in both European and Israeli high-tech firms is how similar they are to each other, and to the kind of combined academic rigor, practical work experience, and continuous-learning values promoted by the best U.S. school-to-work programs.

In all these countries and industries, we found no instance of employer or governmental interest in narrow training for mind-numbing, repetitious, automaton-like employment. On the contrary, what most impresses the American observer is the extent to which leading European and Israeli employers and curriculum specialists seek to develop individuals who are much more than skilled workers--who are creative thinkers and problem-solvers, able to cope in a stressful, fast-changing world.

While Americans seem to feel that values are the exclusive province of family, church, and schools, Europeans practice the belief that work and the workplace can also contribute powerfully to the development of autonomous and effective human beings. All of this is done in a spirit of partnership with the schools, which teach not only theoretical science and mathematics, but also a substantial load of social sciences, humanities, and, in the case of central Europe, virtually mandatory courses in religion, with a heavy emphasis on getting along with others in an increasingly diverse society.

To be sure, this level of employer involvement and leadership developed over many years. Yet the fact that it happened is encouraging for all who believe that schools and employers can work together to produce high schools that work, future employees with impressive skills, and, most important, the kind of young people whose personal values the critics on the political left and right ought to find appealing.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1997 edition of Education Week


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