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The Swiss Apprenticeship System (A Model for the World)

Swiss Apprenticeship System - Swissmem

Swissmem is the Swiss association of mechanical and electrical engineering industries.

On July 2, I had the pleasure of attending the Swissmem Industrietag at the Messe Zürich in Oerlikon. The title of this year's event was Königswege, Spannungsfelder und Entwicklungstrends in der Berufsbildung (high roads, fields of tension, and development trends in vocational education). Coming from an educational background, but more importantly believing that engineering and industry are important for economic and social success, the topic was of great interest to me.


Low Youth Unemployment

After the nice reception and opening words from Swissmem president Hans Hess, the first speaker was the director of the Swiss Coordination Center for Research in Education, Prof. Dr. Stefan C. Wolter. A really interesting man with first hand experience and insights into how other countries view the Swiss system. I would have liked to speak with him afterwards, but unfortunately I could not find him.

The topic on almost all speakers' minds was about Switzerland's dual education system. It gives youth a choice of pursuing an education together with an apprenticeship versus a purely academic path. This education system is one of the reasons why Switzerland has a youth unemployment rate of below 10 percent, while many other European countries are dealing with 25 percent and in cases like Spain even 50 percent youth unemployment.

However, even in Switzerland there are fears, especially in the industrial sector, that there is a growing Akademisierung (academicization). More students attend a Gymnasium (a high school that prepares students for university), and fewer choose to pursue an apprenticeship - which also comes with education.


Advantages of an Apprenticeship

Prof. Dr. Wolter knows that the rest of the world is looking to Switzerland as a role model for improving their own education systems. Among the listed advantages of doing an apprenticeship are:

  • Applicable know-how
  • Strong work ethic
  • Real life problem solving skills
  • Working with people of different ages
  • Socialization into the world of work

Wolter was quick to point out that while he has delegations visiting him weekly, few of the countries actually really subscribe to the underlying idea of the apprenticeship and are simply looking for a quick fix to their youth unemployment problems.

Where the Swiss model has its clear advantage (and this is where it currently also faces potential problems) is that there is mobility. Students can start with an apprenticeship, then move on to university if they choose to pursue an academic title or career. Academics, however, tend not to transfer into industry. A business typically only needs about 10 percent of employees with an academic background for its R&D and to warrant continued success.


Why the Apprenticeship System Will Fail in Many Economies

According to Wolter, a chief reason why the apprenticeship system cannot be easily copied has to do with the nature of industry. Switzerland is known for its precision tool industry which has roots in the watch industry. So working with tiny, delicate components is in the DNA of Switzerland's industrial landscape.

When the precision industry had its crisis in the 1970's, many workers lost their jobs but found new jobs in other fields of robotics and automation. Also, Swiss industry is geographically centralized as many Swiss companies supply components to yet other Swiss companies. For instance, Swatch is the world's largest producer of watch components and supplies most of the Swiss watch industry. So even if you buy a Rolex watch, you are probably still getting some Swatch in there.

This fact allows people to transfer their skills from one business to another. It also shows that Swiss industry survives by being on the cutting edge. In opposition, Prof. Dr. Wolter pointed out that for every USD 300 iPhone imported from China to the US, only USD 10 of work was done in China. The most expensive components are made in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.

America's trade deficit is significantly more out of balance with these countries compared to that with China. Until countries looking to emulate the Swiss apprenticeship system see their economies mature and understand the advantage of having a local network of industries, the apprenticeship track will not work because the skills are too hard to transfer.


Dangers to the System

The current model is under threat in Switzerland. There is a growing tendency to want to extend equal titles to those having completed an apprenticeship and those going the academic route. As Prof. Dr. Lino Guzzella from the ETH Zurich pointed out, this is not a good decision, even if it makes apprenticeships more attractive. His reason is that in their very essence, the two paths are preparing people for two entirely different places in the economy.

It is interesting to note here that Guzzella made it very clear that universities have a role to explore and push the boundaries of knowledge, to work in theory and come up with scientific breakthroughs. In his own words, universities need to be independent of industry.

Polytechnic universities (Fachhochschulen) should work with industries, though. Again, mobility between the different paths was stressed: Academics should be as encouraged to seek employment in industry as those with industrial backgrounds should pursue further education in academics.

Swiss Apprenticeship System - Swissmem

Mobility is the Key

The idea of moving from the academic track to the apprenticeship track is something that a speaker from Eastern Switzerland addressed. The cantons there are smaller and more industrial. He described a trend that a great deal of students in gymnasiums realize a few years into their studies that they do not wish to follow an academic path but would prefer to move into industry.

In these cases, the cantons will work out a fast track apprenticeship curriculum to account for knowledge gained during studies at a gymnasium. This flexibility is exactly what other cantons need to accommodate the youth and prevent them from feeling trapped.

One of the reasons that so many European countries have high youth unemployment is the prevalence of candidates with academic titles and no applicable work skills. These youth do not receive any credit for what they have already accomplished. It remains easier to work one's way up in a career rather than to be unemployed near the top.


The Impacts of Vote from February 9, 2014

The final speaker of the day was Swiss parliamentarian and former Swissmem president Johann Schneider-Ammann. Speaking mostly about how the Federal government is dealing with implementing the quotas on immigration to Switzerland, he acknowledged that the solution is not optimal. Swiss industry groups know this - especially in the Rhein Valley and other industrial sectors relying heavily on foreign workers.

Yet, Schneider-Ammann remained optimistic that Switzerland is full of talent. He stressed that we will need to find a way of ensuring that talent finds its place in the marketplace. He called for education, especially when it comes to the apprenticeship program remaining as separate from political affairs as possible.

Because politics does not understand the market. With 6 to 7 percent of industrial apprenticeship positions in Switzerland remaining unfilled and the ability to fill these positions with foreigners being taken away, those with industrial know-how will surely come to see their economic advantage.

(Photographs copyright by Swissmem)

Swiss Apprenticeship System - Swissmem


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