Joel Zwahlen once made his own watch in school, carefully fashioning each tiny element himself while affirming an interest in metalwork. Today, he is 15 years old and has already begun training for a professional career as a mechanic.
Three days a week, Zwahlen boards the train at 6am to go from his hometown of Münsingen to nearby Thun, where he is in his first month of an apprenticeship programme at Studer AG, the world’s leading manufacturer of round grinding machines used in the auto industry.
Zwahlen’s experiences are shared by 74 other apprentices at Studer and by some 232,000 young people throughout Switzerland who opt to enter employment part-time instead of attending school full-time. They have a wide range of apprenticeship choices, from clerical work to positions as butchers, construction workers or electricians.
Path to employment
According to the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology, the Swiss apprenticeship programme, also known as Vocational Education and Training (VET), “provides two-thirds of young people in Switzerland with a solid foundation in a given occupation”.
The Swiss government, cantons and professional organisations jointly oversee the programme, which combines schooling with practical training and offers apprentices direct access to the workplace or to further career education.
“One of the system’s prominent features is that it combines learning in the workplace and learning and teaching at school,” says Barbara Stalder, an assistant professor at the Neuchâtel University’s Institute of Work and Organisational Psychology.
“This combination is unique and it’s very appreciated by the apprentices themselves because many of them leave compulsory school and are kind of fed up with school, and they really love to enter the world of work. It has also led to a very low youth unemployment rate in Switzerland.”
Today’s flexibility in Switzerland’s apprenticeship programme is a big selling point for young people, according to Michael Kraft, a youth advisor at the Swiss Association of Commercial Employees, which oversees the largest sector of Swiss apprentices.
“The government has increased the level of flow from one career-building experience to another,” he says. “The fact that you can work your way up into many different institutions and training possibilities and don’t already have to decide at 15 years old what your exact career path will be is definitely a success of recent decades.”
Deborah Sigrist is an 18-year-old apprentice at Studer who is starting her final year of training as a commercial employee. She attends school two days a week, which she says is “just enough”, and works at Studer the rest of the time, setting appointments, taking phone calls from clients around the world and learning the ins and outs of the business.
“The idea of not having any practical experience seemed kind of silly to me, so I decided it would be good to start my education with an apprenticeship,” Sigrist says. “This way I can really work with people and not just sit in school.”
Once she finishes her apprenticeship in July 2013, Sigrist has several options available to her. She could go directly into the commercial work world having earned a VET diploma through her apprenticeship.
Or, she could use her diploma to get into a vocational baccalaureate programme, where she would continue her studies in her chosen field and could eventually go on to university. Sigrist says she plans to try to enter the baccalaureate programme.
Supply and demand
According to Roger Leuenberger, a career counsellor at Studer, there is high demand for clerical apprenticeship positions at the firm but generally less interest in those involving technical work. Stalder sees the supply and demand issue as a growing challenge for the Swiss apprenticeship programme.
“I think there is an increasing gap between the apprentices in the trade sector, where demand for apprenticeship places is rather low, and on the contrary in IT or clerical areas, where there is a lot of demand for those apprenticeships,” Stalder says.
“This is a challenge, really, to adapt those programmes to the needs of the labour market and also to the needs of the young people and their interests.”
At the Swiss Association of Commercial Employees, Kraft helps man a telephone hotline for apprentices, business owners or parents who have questions about the commercial apprenticeship programme. He says he occasionally encounters a disconnect between the training that businesses are expected to provide and apprentices’ experiences there.
“I sometimes think it would be good to make sure all businesses are aware that they are undertaking a career and personal development process when they take on an apprentice,” Kraft says.“That works very well in about 90 per cent of the businesses and in the rest of them less well.”
At Studer, Leuenberger says that his apprentices are very involved in the everyday workings of the factory while gaining some theoretical knowledge in twice-weekly on-site lectures. In their third and fourth years, most are working on the actual grinding machines that will be sold to clients, and some have the opportunity to visit clients abroad.
“This way, the apprentices are integrated into the work process and we give them a lot of responsibility,” Leuenberger says. “They check their own work so there’s not always someone looking over their shoulder, that’s an important step. It’s not just the specific curriculum that counts but also building self-confidence and self-knowledge that is just as important.”