Education

Why the world should take note of the Swiss apprenticeship model

Former apprentices have risen to lead major banks, and even the country. Switzerland’s famed apprenticeship system is often held up as the “gold standard” in vocational training and is the number one choice for young people.

Philip Schaufelberger (illustration)

Famous figures who have gone through the system include the CEO of Switzerland’s largest bank UBS, Sergio Ermotti and Finance Minister Ueli Maurer, who started out as a commercial clerk at a farming cooperative.

Ermotti has said that he carries the lessons learned from his apprenticeship, which took place over 40 years ago in a bank in his home town of Lugano, to this day.

“I was executing trades and big orders. And despite my youth, I was given opportunities to push myself and succeed,” he says in “Jobs Now. Vocational education and training Swiss-style”, a 2017 report which features portraits of Swiss CEOS who started as apprentices. “It taught me how to behave in an adult world. I learned to appreciate the value of attention to detail in my work and how every job had many different parts to it, each as important in their own way.”

Switzerland’s dual system combines learning on the job – and being paid a learning wage – with one to two days of theory at school. Around two thirds of Swiss school leavers opt for an apprenticeship.

And there are 230 vocational professions to choose from, ranging from catering to high-tech industries. 

Shortcomings

However, some parents and students feel that young people are forced to make a career choice too early. How can a young person know what they want to do in life aged 14, they argue. But experts say doing an apprenticeship young offers valuable life experience and there is always the option of changing course later on.

There is pressure in some quarters - particularly among expats and professionals - for children to go down the academic route for prestige reasons. Currently only around 20% of pupils go on to study at universities.

But the Swiss authorities remain steadfast in their faith in the apprenticeship system and regularly promote its benefits abroad. Switzerland has hosted a major international congress on vocational and professional education and training (VPET). The last such congress, held in 2018 in Winterthur, was attended by representatives from Singapore, Mozambique and India, for example.

And there has been international recognition: the often-cited “gold standard” label comes from a 2015 Harvard-backed study that deemed Switzerland top in an international comparative study of vocational education systems.

Exported abroad

So who is interested in the Swiss way? The United States for one: in 2016 President Donald Trump signed an executive order pledging $200 million (CHF193.6 million) in funding to create more apprenticeships. Swiss companies, like Bühler or Daetwyler, have been pushing Swiss-style apprenticeship schemes in their US-based subsidiaries.

“There seems to be a bigger push from the governments, State and Federal, in the last three years,” said Michael Taylor, apprenticeship and training manager at Bühler Aeroglide in North Carolina, in a recent interview with swissinfo.ch. “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.”

The British government pledged in 2015 to create three million more apprenticeships by 2020. (It has since said this ambitious aim is not on track). English businesses would also benefit from a Swiss-style apprenticeship system that starts earlier and lasts longer, a 2018 report co-authored by Stefan Wolter, a leading Swiss education expert, found.

And the Swiss are regularly placed among the top three nations in the WorldSkills competition - a kind of Olympics for trade skills, held every two years. Participants are seen as ambassadors of the vocational system, Swiss team officials have told us.

But does it work to export the Swiss system abroad?

Education policy makers, and the broader public in many countries, including the US and the UK for example, still see university as the “gold standard” for career success, our reporting suggests. But many countries want to take some learnings from the Swiss example.

A change in mind-set was still needed towards vocational training, said Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s minister for education, in a 2018 interview during the VPET conference. While some progress had been made in Singapore, he said that officials needed to encourage more companies to train their workforces.

“At the heart of it, our aim is to develop a system of diverse pathways, where our young can choose from options within the spectrum of academic learning and apprenticeship-based vocational training, and find a path that suits them, plays to their strengths, and helps them chart fulfilling careers,” he said.

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