U.S.-Swiss Collaboration Planned for Apprenticeships

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 7, 2015
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The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is planning to establish an apprenticeship program based on the Swiss vocational education model. The U.S. and Switzerland on July 9, 2015, are planning to sign a Joint Declaration of Intent to collaborate on this venture and to exchange policy information and best practices in vocational education and training.

The Swiss model pays students as they learn, producing highly skilled employees for an expansive range of occupations, including those in the information technology, advanced manufacturing and health care fields, as well as in traditional trades and crafts.

The DOL made the announcement during a June 25, 2015, press conference in Washington, D.C.

“This Swiss vocational education model represents a true alternative to college,” noted David Hodes of the National Press Club, who moderated the press conference.

The White House and members of the bipartisan Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus and education research institutions became aware of the Swiss model when Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, reported on it during a visit there in September 2014.

In Switzerland, students as young as 15 sign 3- or 4-year contracts with an employer’s apprenticeship program, which pays them as they learn skills, according to Martin Dahinden, Swiss ambassador to the U.S.

Two-thirds of 16-year-olds in Switzerland choose to start their careers via an apprenticeship as they attend school. The average monthly pay during the first year of an apprenticeship is $800 and increases the following year; certain apprenticeships pay more than others.

“The Swiss system is a combination of practical learning and classroom training,” Dahinden emphasized. The system “is highly permeable,” he noted. “The whole system is to a large extent business-driven,” he said. “The private sector has an important role to play” by providing practical training.

After completing an apprenticeship, students may pursue other career paths or other employers, or attend college. Dahinden’s son, who is in the midst of a 4-year metal processing apprenticeship, may decide to earn a college degree in engineering after completing his apprenticeship.

The U.S. is interested in learning from the Swiss model as a way to fill the skills gap in the United States, said Eric M. Seleznow, deputy assistant secretary of the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration.

Apprenticeship programs have thus far gained little traction in the U.S., SHRM Online reported May 13, 2015, with internships growing at a faster rate than apprenticeships because they require less commitment from employers and educators.

The DOL sees adapting or retooling the Swiss Apprenticeship System, which has been demonstrated to produce highly skilled workers, as a way to create a better path to workforce education and employment.

The U.S. government has previously tried other tactics to encourage apprenticeships, including in December 2014 announcing that the DOL was providing $100 million in grants to fund apprenticeships in growing industries.

One of the challenges in the U.S. in making apprenticeships an attractive alternative is changing the perception that they are for “smokestack” jobs that are hazardous and dirty, or that they are for students who failed to go to college.

“Apprenticeship in this country has been undervalued and underused” and often limited to construction and the trades,” Seleznow said. In Switzerland, apprentices work in advanced manufacturing with cutting-edge technology or in fields such as health care.

Seleznow and the DOL want students and their families to view apprenticeships as the other degree, one that comes with pay and no debt.

“The workforce is changing,” Seleznow said. We’re becoming a more competency-based workforce,” and apprenticeships demonstrate those competencies that employers are looking for in job candidates.

In the U.S., where the average age of an apprentice is 27 or 28 years old, “employers are not part of the education system like in Switzerland,” Seleznow said.

The Swiss ambassador noted that apprenticeships offer other learning opportunities.

“It’s not only about acquiring technical skills,” Dahinden said. “Young people learn to integrate themselves in the adult world. They start to work in a team with people of all ages,” and learn how to work with a client. They acquire skills such as how to deal with the procurement of materials.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.​

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