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Olympia to Bern Washington state leaders learn from Swiss career training

Washington Governor Jay Inslee presents an apprentice at Bern-based company CSL Behring with a gift from his home state

(CSL Behring)

The governor of the US state of Washington and a delegation of nearly 50 business and education leaders are in Switzerland this week to learn about the country’s vocational training system. They hope to make more apprenticeships available to younger students in their home state. 

“We now have our first 12 high school students taking part in apprenticeship programmes, and we need to scale that up,” said Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. He was speaking during the delegation’s visit to CSL Behring, a biotechnology company with some 1,400 employees based in the Swiss capital of Bern that is currently training 43 apprentices. 

Washington state, with a population of 7.2 million, is home to numerous large technology and aerospace companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing and expects it will need to fill some 740,000 high-skilled jobs in the next five years. 

The state’s current apprenticeship offerings tend to be more oriented towards adults with an average age of 27 or 28, explained delegation member Demetria Lynn Strickland. She helps oversee AJAC, an apprenticeship programme affiliated with the aerospace industry, where the average apprentice is aged 33. 

That’s a marked difference from Switzerland’s vocational training system, wherein circa 70% of the country’s secondary school graduates enter an apprenticeship around age 16. 

“We need to bring people into the apprenticeship pipeline sooner,” Strickland said. 

‘Permeability’ 

While at CSL Behring, the delegation visited apprentices working in the logistics, lab sciences and IT fields. Under the Swiss system, they can easily shift career paths or seek higher education after they have earned their initial vocational training diploma, through a network of universities of applied sciences and federally recognised programmes. 

Members of the Washington delegation heard about laboratory-based apprenticeships at CSL Behring

(CSL Behring)

That so-called “permeability” of Switzerland’s apprenticeship system became a buzzword among the visitors. Michael Meotti of the Washington State Achievement Council, views it as a major benefit of the Swiss model over other, less flexible systems such as the one in Germany. 

That’s because education policymakers in the United States tend to be very opposed to “early-stage tracking” of students, where they are sent down a career path at a young age that offers little flexibility later on. 

“In the US, people who don’t know what they want to do at age 16, 17 or 18 tend to get left behind,” Meotti said. “The Swiss system lets you do what works for you at that point in your life, and change gears later on if you want to.” 

Convincing companies 

Jane Broom Davidson of Microsoft Philanthropies, who is on her second visit to Switzerland to learn about vocational training, says that the companies, philanthropic organisations, educational institutions and trade associations in Washington are in the process of trying to understand their roles in creating a more widespread and effective apprenticeship system. 

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“What sticks out in Switzerland is the level of collaboration among employers, educators and the government, and the ability to make decisions together,” she said. 

Governor Inslee, who has made job creation a central part of his political platform, said creating more apprenticeships in his state is contingent on the support of the business community and the ability to get more companies on board. He also cited the importance of involving the state’s historically strong labour unions in broadening apprenticeship offerings beyond the building trades to fields like insurance or IT. 

“Hearing advice from Swiss businesses and evaluating the benefit to companies of the apprenticeship system has been very instructive,” he said. 

So has, he added, “hearing the excitement” in the voices of the young Swiss apprentices just starting down their career paths. 

Washington state delegation visit 

Partially spearheaded by former ambassador to Switzerland Suzi LeVine and her husband Eric, who make their home in Washington state, the four-day Washington delegation visit included trips to the Bern and Zurich regions for presentations at Swiss companies, professional education schools and career information centres. 

The programme was organised by Presence Switzerland, a division of the Foreign Affairs ministry, and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI).

More than 30 Swiss companies have a presence in Washington state or are interested in setting up operations there, including helping to introduce apprenticeships. 

Swiss companies are the seventh- largest source of foreign direct investment in the state of Washington and employ more than 7,700 workers in the state.

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