Switzerland, Germany and Austria, three countries where apprenticeship programmes are most prevalent, also have the lowest youth unemployment rates in Europe. Some policy makers are wondering if there is a connection and whether the focus on ever higher education is the best way to address youth unemployment
Stefan Wolter, director of the Swiss Coordination Center for Research in Education in Bern, believes there is a connection although it has not been scientifically proven. “Thanks to the apprenticeship training system, Switzerland is also the country with the lowest mismatch between available skills and the skills required by employers.”
Only ten per cent of Swiss secondary level students fail to complete their studies because the dual apprenticeship system allows them to move, while still in school, between academic and technical occupational fields. This has raised the image of apprenticeships far above the days when they were seen as mainly an option for early school leavers or those interested in blue collar jobs.
The Swiss banking sector even funds the Centre for Young Professionals for fledging bankers and according to a report by the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology, “a vocational credential can land you in upper management or at Switzerland’s universities of Applied Sciences.” In today’s knowledge-based economy, whether young people are interested in pursuing a trade in plumbing or a white-collar job in banking, they need a lot of training.
When compulsory education ends at age 15, students must decide whether to pursue university or vocational training. By 16, they can sign a vocational contract with an employer who pays a monthly salary between CHF 800 and 1,000 a month for a two to four-year course. According to Wolter, the work they do more than reimburses the employer for the costs of the training. Foreigners can also do a Swiss apprenticeship, but only if living with family inside Switzerland or just over the Swiss border.
Wolter notes that a unique aspect of the Swiss system is its mobility, even in rare cases where the student does not get a job offer from the training company. “The transition to the next job is very smooth which is proof that employers regard the certificates as signalling skills that are useful to many companies.” Everything else being equal, Wolter added, “preference is usually given to workers with apprenticeships.”
Although apprenticeships are mainly popular in Germanic countries, the Organization of Swiss Abroad said there are more full-time vocational training colleges in Suisse romande and in Ticino than in German-speaking Switzerland. Nationwide, however, the number of young Swiss pursuing vocational training lags well behind those pursuing higher education.
That may change if a 2013-2014 study by the OCDE of its 34-member nations has any impact. Reviewing the value of apprenticeships in a world increasingly focusing on higher education, it concluded that when implemented well, vocational education is the preferred strategy for helping young people enter the labour market.
Pamela Taylor is a Geneva-based writer with a long career as a journalist for National Public Radio, Voice of America, AFP’s English Service, and others, in Central Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo