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From North Carolina to Uzwil How an apprenticeship trumps college

Simon Mitchell

Simon Mitchell on the shop floor at Bühler, Uzwil

(swissinfo.ch)

While most of his peers opted for college, Simon Mitchell went for a Swiss-style apprenticeship at tech firm Bühler in North Carolina that allowed him to earn and learn – and left him with no debts. But these kind of apprenticeships are still rare in the United States.

Mitchell and three fellow Bühlerexternal link apprentices were at the company headquarters in Uzwil, eastern Switzerland, recently to celebrate their graduation. Recruited fresh out of high school, they were the first students to complete a funded four-year apprenticeship scheme at Bühler Aeroglideexternal link, near the NC capital Raleigh.

The aim of the programme: to plug the growing skills gap in technical professions in the region.

The welding apprentices had intended to fly over earlier in the month in time for Swiss Skills, a giant apprenticeship fair and competition, in the Swiss capital Bern. But hurricane Florence, which slammed into the southern US state mid-September, put paid to that, delaying flights for a week.

But there still has been plenty of time to enjoy Switzerland and experience working life there, the 21-year-old Mitchell says, as we meet at the firm’s Swiss HQ for an interview.

So what attracted him to doing an apprenticeship? “I had an idea where I wanted to go careerwise, but there weren't many options that I thought would get me to where I wanted to be and the apprenticeship happened to come along at the right time,” Mitchell told swissinfo.ch.

“Straight out of high school I was given the opportunity to start a career with benefits beyond what I could have imagined in such a short period of time, so I couldn't pass it up.”

Swiss model

The scheme, part of the North Carolina Triangle Apprenticeship Programme (NCTAPexternal link), co-founded by Bühler and several other local firms in 2013, combined classes at a local community college with the on the job training – rather like the famous Swiss dual training model.

+ Read more about how the Swiss dual track system works here

Indeed, Bühler says it is the “most Swiss” of all the training programmes the company runs worldwide (it has around 500 apprentices across the globe).

There were some differences though. “We're not as specialised in a certain department for the full four years, so a lot of the time we would be in a department for a couple of months so that we could learn everything about the company over time,” Mitchell explained.

But like in Switzerland, the apprentices were paid a salary by the companies and had their tuition paid by the state, just like a Swiss canton would. They graduated with an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology and a journeyman’s certificate issued by the North Carolina Department of Commerce -  and the guarantee of a job afterwards.

No debt

Of course the idea of finishing your studies without thousands of dollars debt – unlike after a college degree – made the programme all the more attractive. Most young people in North Carolina, and across the US, opt for college, it’s still the standard route, admits Mitchell.

Currently fewer than 2% of 18-24 year oldsexternal link are enrolled in apprenticeships.

It was not hard to win over his own family to the idea of an apprenticeship as Mitchell’s mother is Austrian and had herself done one. “For friends it took a little bit more of explaining because it is something that is not very typical. But once you tell them what the benefits are, it’s very easy to explain and they catch on pretty quick,” he said.

Mitchell is clear on what he gained from his training. “I matured a lot faster because I was thrown into the workplace right away. But I was also given the opportunity to get my degree and learn, and at the same time gain the practical experience.”

Apprenticeship and training manager Michael Taylor accompanied his charges on their Swiss trip. He said he was proud and excited, but also a little sad and nervous to see the pilot group finish.

Gaining traction?

Taylor feels that the idea of apprenticeships is gaining momentum. “There seems to be a bigger push from the governments, State and Federal, in the last three years. People are starting to see the benefit of the combination of work experience and education. Most of all having a career with no college debt,” he said via email, having been unable to join the interview.

+ Read more on North Carolina’s interest in the Swiss system

+ Betsy DeVos visits Switzerland to talk about vocational training

The first set of graduates will help show that this is real, he said. And his work is continuing: the next four apprentices started at Bühler Aeroglide on October 1.

For Bühler’s overall head of apprenticeships, Andreas Bischof, the investment, “has paid off several times over because all first four apprenticeship graduates be working for Bühler Aeroglide afterwards. And we know them very well: what their professional skills are, and more importantly, on a personal level”.

The NC scheme could eventually serve as a model for others, he said.

Mitchell also feels attitudes towards vocational training are changing. So how did it feel to be among so many apprentices during his trip? Bühler Uzwil trains up to 80 a year, in many domains. It has been a little different, but also refreshing, Mitchell said.

And his overall impression of Switzerland? There were some cultural differences, but nothing negative, he said with a smile. “It’s different to see everything close so early but I have also enjoyed all the beautiful scenery here.” And the worth ethic “has been just the same as what is broadcast to us over in the States”.

Bühler

Bühler is a technology company, which focuses on processing grains, rice, cocoa, coffee and other raw materials. It is also a solution provider of die-casting and surface-coating technologies in high volume application areas, such as automotive, optics and inks.

In 2017external link, it had 10,972 employees in over 140 countries and generated a turnover of CHF2.67 billion ($2.7 billion).

It is a Swiss family owned company based in Uzwil, a town in canton St Gallen (population c.13,000).

Bühler Aeroglide is a unit that specialises in industrial drying, for example in the feed and food sectors.

(Source: Bühler)

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