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October 01, 2013 5:21 PM How Apprenticeships Work in Switzerland

By Daniel Luzer

Some conservative critics argue that the problem with American higher education is that too many high school students are going to college. College is something where they may not be prepared to succeed and the education will end up costing parents more than they can really afford.

As such, they opposed the effort of the Obama administration to reduce the cost of college and make it so that “everyone can go to college.” A recent piece at Quartz looks at another way to do this. It’s maybe worth taking a look at Switzerland.

In Switzerland, small and large companies, state of the art factories and insurance agencies, banks, hospitals, and retail stores host apprentices who greet customers, work on complex machines, carry out basic medical procedures, and even advise investors—in short, they do everything an entry level employee would do, albeit under the wings of credentialed teachers within the company. Percentages of “educational” employees are similar in the 30% of Swiss companies that participate in the vocational education system.

This is the sort of training many American interns wish they had. But it’s not, like in the U.S. some vaguely exploitative shadow economy, where people toil for limited pay and vague suggestions that there might be a real job somewhere. No, this is the actual economy of Switzerland.

Seventy percent of teenagers in Switzerland spend their week moving between a workplace, a sector organization, and school. They’re paid a monthly starting wage of around $800, rising to around $1,000 by the time they are in their third year. In return, the Swiss have a “talent pipeline of young professionals,” how fledging bankers actually refer to themselves at Credit Suisse.

It also integrates well into Switzerland’s educational system, which is strong because of high-quality vocational training.

At 16, the majority of young people enter the vocational upper secondary system. (In most developed countries, compulsory school ends at 15, and students enter either academic or vocational programs—the latter are like a combo of high school and community college.) The primary component of the Swiss system is the workplace; students sign a contract with an employer at age 15 or 16. The second component is a sectoral organization. The banking sector’s organization is the Center for Young Professionals (CYP), where students receive industry orientation and some technical training, is funded by the Swiss banking industry. The third component is school, where 16 to 19 year olds generally study languages, mathematics, history, ethics, and law.
Although Germany is more widely known for its apprenticeship system, Switzerland arguably has the best so-called “dual system” in the world. Students can move between academic and VET [vocational education and training] systems, and can chose among six postsecondary occupational fields (technical, business, design, commercial, natural sciences, and health and social work) after completing their upper secondary training.

This is a vocational and collegiate system that works.

It provides workers with direct training for good jobs that actually exist. It keeps education costs low, and, what’s most interesting here, it’s fairly cheap to administer.

The government needs provide no special tax or business incentives for companies to participate; according to the article businesses want to do this because they actually benefit from having the young people work for them.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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