Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sees Switzerland as a model for California. And, no, it's not the banks or watches. It's Switzerland's vocational education and training of young people, preparing them for the demanding jobs of the future.
Many developed countries worry about what has been called "generation jobless" after the Great Recession, in which young people are neither in jobs nor training. Switzerland, by contrast, has very low unemployment in the 16- to 24-year-old age group.
Steinberg visited Switzerland and found a system in which students can choose to combine classroom and workplace learning after grade nine. Instead of sitting five days a week in classrooms, they spend three days in paid apprenticeships or internships and two days in academic work in the classroom.
This dual system of learning and work promotes high-productivity and high-wage jobs, not dead-end, sub-living wage jobs.
In this country, high school diplomas alone ceased long ago to provide a pathway to well-paid, middle class jobs. But not all jobs require a bachelor's degree.
"We're different from Switzerland," Steinberg says. "But the model and the practices are undeniable, a system where if a student does his or her part, there's close to a guarantee of a high-wage job."
California already has many high school career technical programs, but they vary in quality and many serve only a small number of students.
How to build on that system, without reverting back to the dreaded "tracking" of old? The key, Steinberg believes, is "permeability" — not preparing some students just for college and others just for work, but providing all students with the skills needed to pursue a number of options.
To that end, Steinberg championed a $250 million California Career Pathways Trust for one-time, competitive grants, which passed the Legislature last July.
The demand is huge. Nearly 300 applications came in by the March 28 deadline seeking more than $1.5 billion. Announcements will be made May 23.
In Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Mariposa counties, 21 school districts have teamed with community colleges on an application that focuses on the fields of agriculture, health care, manufacturing, child development, global trade and entrepreneurship and construction. They're emphasizing a "dual enrollment" curriculum so high school students can earn college credit for their work.
If the funding is secured, it would go to teacher training, hiring program specialists, textbooks, outreach and student transportation.
Lori Morton, director of the State Center Consortium, which coordinated the grant application, said the fields of training were identified based on labor market data.
She said that building strong relationships among high schools, community colleges and the business community is essential to successful career technical education programs. She also cited the importance of a "dual enrollment" curriculum in which high school students receive college credits for their work.
The 21 school districts and community colleges are located in Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Mariposa counties and represent an area of 7,300 square miles.
The consortium and its many partners are to be commended for working closely together. Their proposal is well thought out and worthy of funding.