For a country that fits into the state of California 10 times, Switzerland punches above its weight when it comes to global competitiveness.

In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report, it comes in fifth overall - but tops the ranking for skills.

“Switzerland’s performance is outstanding in areas related to human capital,” the report notes.

The country was ranked the best in the world for vocational training, on-the-job training and the employability of its graduates.

Image: The Global Competitiveness Report

So what is Switzerland doing right when it comes to skilling its workforce?

Up to 70% of secondary school students take part in its ‘gold-standard’ vocational education training system (VET), according to a 2015 report by the Center for International Education Benchmarking (CIEB).

From age 16, most young people stop full-time education, instead rotating between school, inter-company courses and hands-on experience in a workplace setting for three-to-four years, receiving both a wage and a crucial introduction to the world of work.

What do we mean by ‘competitiveness’?

What is economic competitiveness? The World Economic Forum, which has been measuring countries' competitiveness since 1979, defines it as: “the set of institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country." Other definitions exist, but all generally include the word “productivity”.


The Global Competitiveness Report is a tool to help governments, the private sector, and civil society work together to boost productivity and generate prosperity. Comparative analysis between countries allows leaders to gauge areas that need strengthening and build a coordinated response. It also helps identify best practices around the world.

The Global Competitive Index forms the basis of the report. It measures performance according to 114 indicators that influence a nation’s productivity. The latest edition covered 141 economies, accounting for over 98% of the world’s GDP.

Countries’ scores are based primarily on quantitative findings from internationally recognized agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Health Organization, with the addition of qualitative assessments from economic and social specialists and senior corporate executives.

‘Strong support’ from employers

The CIEB report says the VET system, in which 30% of Swiss companies partcipate, prepares a broad cross-section of students for careers in a range of occupations and sectors.

“It enjoys very strong support from Swiss employers, who credit it with being a major contributor to the continuing vitality and strength of the Swiss economy.”

The country benefits from a pipeline of young-professional talent, it says, low youth unemployment in the single digits and the skilled workforce needed to produce high-quality goods and services.


Because of this focus on vocational training, there’s also less emphasis placed on getting a degree. Less than a third of young people under 25 went into tertiary education in 2012, compared to more than half of those in Australia and Norway, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Entry rates into tertiary education around the world in 2012.
Image: OECD

Matthias Ammann, a fellow at economic think-tank Avenir Suisse, told Times Higher Education: “A lot of voices say we should keep [university enrolment] at this level because vocational education training is the reason why Switzerland is doing so well at the moment.”

In fact, many apprentices who have gone down the vocational training route end up with better job prospects than graduates - including Sergio Ermotti, the chief executive of Swiss bank UBS, who started his career on an apprenticeship at a local bank.

In the Global Competitiveness Report, Switzerland was also judged the best for staff training, with many companies recognizing the benefits of professional development.

Finland, which came top in the skills category in last year’s Global Competitiveness Report, dropped to second place this year - but is still judged to be the best country for teaching critical thinking and digital skills.