Could Swiss-Style Apprenticeships Fill in the U.S. Skills Gap?

Swiss ambassador describes how his country uses apprenticeships to train and employ its workforce

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer February 16, 2018
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​As U.S. employers create more jobs with in-demand skills, businesses, workforce development advocates, educational institutions and the government are turning to apprenticeships to bring workers up to speed.  

President Donald Trump has proposed increasing the number of apprentices from 500,000 to 5 million by 2022, doubling spending on the Apprenticeship USA program, and simplifying the registration process to make it easier for organizations to hire apprentices. He's described it as his Labor Department's top priority.

The Trump administration (and the Obama administration before it) has partnered with Switzerland to learn about its apprenticeship system—one of the most robust and successful in the world. Roughly 70 percent of Swiss nationals begin their career with an apprenticeship, keeping youth unemployment down and talent pools for many occupations well-stocked.

The Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States Martin Dahinden discussed with SHRM Online the mechanics of the Swiss model that make it work, if the model can be replicated in the U.S., and what role employers should play in the process.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

SHRM Online: Could you briefly break down how the Swiss apprenticeship model works and why the U.S. would want to emulate it?

Dahinden: First, training takes place partly in a classroom setting, and in parallel at work, bringing both theory and practice together. Practice is very important to be gained in a workplace setting, because there you are exposed to cutting-edge technology, interaction with customers, and being part of a team with people from different generations and professions.

Secondly, by defining the curriculum, companies are involved from the start. Government plays an important role, but the private sector is involved, and this makes sure that the experience somebody acquires during an apprenticeship fits well with the labor market. It's also important that the apprentices do not pay for their education. An apprentice has a small salary that increases during the time spent working, but he or she can acquire an education without paying for it.

The system in Switzerland is open, meaning that apprentices are open to go to a technical college or university once fulfilling the apprenticeship requirements. It's not a crossroads where you have to decide to either get an apprenticeship or go to college. And then there's the variety. Apprenticeships are available not only in manufacturing, but also in IT, health care, and professional business services like finance, insurance or marketing. 

Also, apprenticeships in Switzerland are not considered a second-class education. People who started with apprenticeships have become government ministers or CEOs of multinational companies.

SHRM Online: How can the Swiss model best be replicated within the framework of U.S. society, culture and workforce development governance, and which aspects would the U.S. have to modify?

Dahinden: The United States and Switzerland have a very different educational environment. I think that you can't easily replicate the Swiss model in the U.S. The best thing to do is to look at the core elements and then to think how to combine the practical training in a company with classroom training that provides a broader perspective. This can be done in cooperation with community colleges and workforce development organizations. The right input from the private sector is needed to ensure that the skills acquired during apprenticeships are the skills needed in the labor market. The U.S. can learn from the Swiss experience about what works or doesn't work, but every country interested in an apprenticeship model needs to develop their own. It is not a copy-and-paste issue.

SHRM Online: Have you seen any apprenticeship programs here in the U.S. that stand out as model programs?

Dahinden: I've seen the ones that have involved Swiss companies. There have been companies that couldn't find the people they were looking for, and were not able to bring in expatriate workers, so they developed their own program. Buhler is an example of this. It's a company initiative in which they have taken curricula elements from Switzerland and created their own program. Another approach I have seen is in North Carolina. A group of companies formed a consortium and worked with a local community college to train a critical mass of apprentices that benefits them all. A third type is a more systemic approach inspired by the Swiss system, like we've seen in Colorado, where CareerWise Colorado [an industry-created nonprofit] works with the state government to create programs statewide. 

SHRM Online: What should the role of employers be?

Dahinden: In Switzerland employers are not obligated to maintain apprenticeship programs. They want to do it, which leads to having a commitment to it. They are not doing it because it's compulsory or to receive tax incentives. There is also no commitment from the company to employ the apprentices after the initial contract has run out. But very often, they do recruit the best workers. They also provide a workplace, of course, pay apprentices and play a cooperative role in designing curriculum.

SHRM Online: What do you think of the idea that vocational education and the skilled trades need a marketing facelift in the United States?

Dahinden: In my view, it's not just new branding or packaging that is needed. The challenge is to develop something that works. It's not just to say that everything is in place and you just need good marketing. The challenge is to determine if a system can be erected that closes skills gaps, creates jobs and has a positive impact on unemployment.  

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