Comparative advantages of school and workplace environment in skill acquisition. Empirical evidence from a survey among professional tertiary education and training students in Switzerland

Date03 April 2017
Published date03 April 2017
AuthorThomas Bolli,Ursula Renold
Comparative advantages of school
and workplace environment in
skill acquisition
Empirical evidence from
a survey among professional
tertiary education and training
students in Switzerland
Thomas Bolli and Ursula Renold
MTEC-KOF, ETHZ, Zurich, Switzerland
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to shed light on the questions as to how important skills are; which
skills can best be learned at school, and which skills can be acquired better in the workplace.
Design/methodology/approach The authors exploit data from a survey among professional tertiary
education and training business administration students and their employers in Switzerland.
Findings The authors find that skills used in the business processes strategic management, human
resource management, organizational design, and project management are most suitable to be taught in
school. However, the results further suggest that soft skills can be acquired more effectively in the workplace
than at school. The only exceptions are analytical thinking, joy of learning and organizational soft skills, for
which school and workplace are similarly suitable.
Practical implications The paper provides empirical evidence regarding the optimal choice of the
learning place for both human resource managers as well as educational decision makers who aim to combine
education and training, e.g. in an apprenticeship.
Originality/value Little evidence regarding the optimal learning place exists.
Keywords Competences, Relevance, Soft skills, Skills, Workplace learning, School, Learning place
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Soft skills become increasingly relevant in the workplace. Figure 1 illustrates this general
development for Switzerland by displaying the share of all published job advertisements
that mention soft skills as job requirements between 1950 and 2011 (Salvisberg, 2010)[1].
Figure 1 shows that beginning in the 1980s, an increasing share of all job advertisements
contain soft skill requirements. In 2011, nearly 60 percent of job advertisements
mention some type of soft skills, highlighting the relevance of soft skills in the workplace.
Figure 1 further shows that the overall demand for work experience increases since the
1970s, suggesting that learning in the workplace represents an increasingly important
source of skills[2].
As a result of the increasing relevance of soft skills, the education system is often
blamed to put too little emphasis on soft skill development (see e.g. Boyce et al., 2001;
Kavanagh and Drennan, 2008; Hancock et al., 2009; Jackson, 2014). However, Aarkrog
(2005) points out that school and workplace differ in terms of their ability to convey
particular skills and hence have a comparative advantage in teaching particular skills.
Since little evidence regarding these comparative advantages exists, this paper aims to
provide empirical evidence regarding the questions raised in Aarkrog (2005), who
Evidence-based HRM: a Global
Forum for Empirical Scholarship
Vol. 5 No. 1, 2017
pp. 6-29
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/EBHRM-05-2015-0020
Received 29 May 2015
Revised 30 October 2015
8 February 2016
Accepted 18 February 2016
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
JEL Classification A23, I21
analyzes how to teach customer service skills and impart knowledge of goods in the shop
to sales assistants:
In order tostrengthen the dual training system,continuing educationand, in a broader sense, lifelong
education. It is necessary to clarify the relationship between the qualifications needed to solve tasks in
workplaceswithin specifictrades and the opportunities for learningin the school andin the workplace,
respectively. What qualifications are best obtained in school and in the workplace, respectively?
This citation illustrates that education system managers and human resource managers,
who aim to improve the skills of their employees face three key questions for which this
paper provides empirical evidence. Hence, the empirical part of this paper consists of three
parts. The first and the second part assess the relative relevance of skills and where they can
best be learned (Section 5.1). The third part of the empirics analyzes the relationship
between the use of pedagogic instruments and the assessment of schools as a suitable
learning place compared to the workplace.
First, in order to guide the decision on which skills to improve, it is necessary to know
which skills are the most important. Hence, we analyze the relative importance of a broad
variety of skills.Second, the education system and human resource managersneed to choose
the learning environment, which can be broadly separated into school-based education and
work-based training. Because skills differ in the extent to which conceptualizing,
experimenting, experiencing and reflecting matter in the learning process (Raelin, 1997),
school- and work-based learning places differ in their skill-specific comparative advantage.
Choosing theoptimal learning place for eachskill is particularly relevantdue to restrictions of
time and resources (see e.g. Woronoff, 2009; Howieson et al., 2014).
Third, based on the decided skills and the corresponding learning places, education
system managers and human resource managers need to choose the way in which the two
learning places are linked. This can take the form of combining school and work-based
education in an appropriate way (see e.g. Stern et al., 1997; Leong and Kavanagh, 2013).
Alternatively, the link between the learning places might be fostered by engaging
employers in the education process (see e.g. Barnett et al., 1987; Howieson et al., 2014) or by
employing pedagogic tools aiming to transmute theoretical knowledge into practical skills
(see e.g. Boyce et al., 2001; Shaw et al., 2007; Schulz, 2008).
Analyzing the data based on a survey conducted in 2014 among business administration
students of Swiss Colleges of Professional Education and Training during their last year of
studies and their corresponding supervisors, this paper extends the extensive evidence
3rd Order Polynomial (Experience) 3rd Order Polynomial (Soft Skills)
Soft Skills
Source: Own graph based on the data given to the authors by
the responsible bodies of the “job-market-monitoring”,
University of Zurich
Figure 1.
Development of the
share of job
mentioning soft skills
School and

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