Faced with massive youth unemployment, Britain is the latest country to take an interest in the Swiss apprenticeship system. The “dual” model which combines work experience with education, is being seen more and more as a good solution.
Small groups of young people in suits and sneakers wind their way around the stands on the first floor of the House of Switzerland, the marketing platform for Switzerland during the Olympics. These adolescent Londoners have come to learn about the Swiss apprenticeship system.
“I'm not doing much with my time these days. I want to make some money, get a job in construction or engineering," says Jamie, 19.
Shawn, 19, also has high hopes of getting a contract with one of the businesses present, such as Swiss Post Solutions, a subsidiary of Swiss post which employs 80 apprentices throughout the country. The company is a pioneer in Britain, where only eight per cent of companies provide apprenticeships.
“Too little emphasis was placed on practical skills for too long in this country, due to the latent snobbery against them," says Judith Wilcox, Britain’s parliamentary under-secretary for business, innovation and skills.
Rampant youth unemployment
In Britain, a university education is still widely viewed as the only legitimate path to the workforce and just 500,000 youth undertake vocational training.
“Traditionally in Britain, apprenticeships are seen as being fit only for manual jobs, like electricians or carpenters,” says Richard Scott from Swiss Post Solutions. “People don't realise they are also for more modern jobs in IT or engineering.”
It wasn’t always the case, says Lutz-Peter Berg, an attaché to the Swiss Embassy in London.
“There used to be a tradition of vocational training in Britain, but since the 1980s, it no longer plays a big part in education,” he says. “This evolution started under the Thatcher government, that didn't consider training young people as being the role of a liberal free market state. New Labour's strategy to bring 50 per cent of youngsters into university accentuated this.”
But that trend has started to reverse over the last dozen or so years. Confronted with rampant youth unemployment – currently hovering around 24 per cent - and with a lack of qualified people, the government is now looking to promote vocational training. It has invested £25 million (SFr38.2 million) to create 20,000 new apprenticeship places, notably in the renewable energy, insurance and engineering sectors, says Wilcox.
It has also committed to paying 100 per cent of costs for training apprentices aged 16 to 18, and 50 per cent for those aged 19 to 24. As a result, the number of apprentices has increased by 63 per cent in the last two years.
But Berg says employers have yet to fully embrace the apprenticeship scheme.
“The piece missing here is the employers; they are not yet on board,” he says, adding that the institutions that run educational training and determine the curriculum often do so with little regard for the needs of the market.
“Young people face a jungle of different vocational training providers, some private, some public,” says Berg.
Britain needs a network of umbrella associations “which could develop a nationally unified system of content and certification, such as in Switzerland”, suggests Ursula Renold, outgoing director of the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology (OPET). In fact, each business develops its own apprenticeship model itself.
Confronted with these challenges, Britain is seeking guidance from the Swiss.
“We have established a working relationship with the British government,” says Berg. “We supply them with keynote speakers at selected events, we sponsor the national apprenticeship awards and we invited an expert delegation from Britain to Switzerland to learn about apprenticeships.”
The initiative is part of a larger effort to export the Swiss apprenticeship model, which according to the government strategy for education, research and training published in 2010, should be “better positioned at international level as an export product”.
A pilot project established in 2008 saw the introduction of the system in India.
“Some machine industry businesses, which had subsidiaries in this country, led the way,” says Renold. The aim is that the scheme will spread; the Indian government has committed itself to training 526 million apprentices by 2020.
“We are now looking at extending the programme to other countries such as China, Vietnam, Brazil, South Africa and the United States,” she adds. In South Africa, Switzerland has been developing vocational training in technical professions such as electricians, welders and turners for the last two to four years.
And for Switzerland, there are several advantages in exporting this system, which otherwise only exists in Germany and Austria.
“It will allow us to better respond to the employment needs of the Swiss economy and its production units in emerging economies,” according to the government strategy document.
Exporting the apprenticeship model will also create more opportunities for Swiss apprentices to find work elsewhere because a Swiss diploma will be recognised outside Switzerland, says Renold.
Switzerland is also hoping to turn its apprenticeship model into an “exportable service”, an idea which is already a reality in India where local firms wanting to use a Swiss curriculum must purchase a license to do so.
Apprenticeships in Switzerland
In Switzerland, two thirds of young people opt for vocational training, which combines work experience with educational courses. In April 2012, 80,500 adolescents were looking for an apprenticeship place, with businesses providing 80,000.
Of the 193,000 businesses in the country, 55,000 train apprentices. But supply of places does not always correspond to demand. Some 22,000 apprenticeship places were unfilled at the beginning of summer, notably in the “technical professions”, which include sectors such as engineers, electricians or computer scientists.
On the flipside, there are more candidates than places in the service sector, health, social work, sales, office jobs, printing and design.
PwC and the Swiss model
The Swiss apprenticeship model is already being imitated in Britain.
PricewaterhouseCoopers based its higher level vocational training for the service sector on the Swiss model.
"We developed a new framework for the services sector,” said Matt Hamnett, the programme director at PwC. “This higher apprenticeship, which lasts 18 to 24 months, is available after A levels and leads to a qualification in audit, tax or consultancy."
Developed in collaboration with some 40 partners, including the “Big Four” auditors of small and medium businesses, the programme inducted its first group of apprentices in August 2012.
"We expect to have 350 apprentices on this programme by March 2013," says Hamnett, adding that a second two-year course is being developed.
"This will be a route to chartered professional status and will be equivalent to a university degree. We expect it to provide a new way into this career path and open it up to a broader range of profiles."