Apprenticeship in Switzerland – A Model for the U.S.?

Switzerland’s system of vocational training—on-the-job learning through apprenticeships, combined with schooling—has admirers around the world, including in the United States.

With Switzerland’s youth unemployment at only 3 percent, and that in the U.S. above 10 percent and climbing, can the U.S. employ a Swiss-style system to help close the skills gap?

What the U.S. Can Learn from Switzerland

About two-thirds of Swiss 15- and 16-year-olds enroll in a three-year vocational training program. Vocational training is a dual-track approach that combines practical job training at a company with part-time classroom instruction at a vocational school—while receiving a salary.  

In a country of just over 8 million people, approximately 58,000 Swiss companies provide vocational training to roughly 80,000 apprentices. “Businesses regard training of young people as their social responsibility,” says Franziska Schwarz, vice director of the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology (OPET), which oversees the country’s vocational programs. Unemployment among young people is only around 3 percent.

Some countries—Britain, India, and the United States among them—have shown interest in emulating Switzerland’s apprenticeship model. In the U.S., where a college degree is usually a prerequisite for a high-income career, there have been “many attempts to change our college-based system, and all of them failed,” says Dr. Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. In general, due to the centuries-old guild system in German-speaking countries, which many other countries lack, apprenticeships enjoy a higher status in Switzerland than in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Change Is Hard 

Cultural differences, and differences in political systems, matter. While apprenticeships used to be the standard way for young people to learn a trade in the United States, today, as Dr. Carnevale notes, there is a cultural resistance to sorting high school students into different tracks, as well as to more business regulations, which vocational education programs would require.

Furthermore, contemporary Americans tend to prefer “free labor”—labor that is free to move from one job to another at will—and accept the associated costs in return: Free labor increases the risk to an employer to invest in employee training. Employers naturally hesitate to spend time, money, and effort training apprentices who might simply move on to another company after completing an apprenticeship. Employers and apprentices could sign private contracts specifying a minimum number of years that the trainee must work for the company after the vocational training is complete, which seems unlikely to happen on a large scale without widespread cultural and political support.

Public subsidies for vocational training are also a touchy subject in the U.S., where there is already contentious debate in politics and among the public about government spending.

Change Is Possible

Encouraging a Swiss-style apprenticeship system is a bipartisan undertaking. When then-Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann called to congratulate President-elect Donald Trump, the Swiss apprenticeship system was a big part of the discussion.  Tom Perez, Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama, returned from a 2015 visit to Switzerland believing the Swiss system could be a model for the United States. President Obama’s ambassador to Switzerland, Suzi LeVine, is also a strong supporter of Swiss-style vocational training.

Secretary Perez noted that the United States “has drastically under-invested in apprenticeship.” Businesses in the U.S.—both foreign and American—have begun to address this underinvestment. Similar to how apprenticeships work, more and more employers are collaborating with community colleges to provide students not only with necessary hands-on skills, but also with academic education that so many young Americans lack today—the majority of applicants for such jobs do not master ninth-grade reading, writing, and math. Apprenticeships and vocational training are becoming recognized in the U.S. as necessary for “middle-skill” jobs—such as in health care, construction, skilled manufacturing, and the ubiquitous computer technology.

John Deere has designed a curriculum and donated farm equipment to several community colleges to train technicians for its equipment. Siemens, after being unable to find qualified workers for its plant in Charlotte, North Carolina, created an apprenticeship program for local high schools that combines four years of on-the-job-training with an Associate’s degree from a nearby community college. Graduates will not be saddled with student loans, unlike so many of their peers who obtain a Bachelor’s degree.

Thirty Swiss companies now offer apprenticeships in the U.S. , including Nestle, Novartis, Logitech International, and Schindler. 

Government, too, is getting on board. The U.S. federal government allocated $265 million in 2015 and 2016 for apprenticeship programs. The governor of Colorado announced an ambitious public-private partnership for state-wide vocational training programs.

So, what about the cultural differences, which lead many Americans, for instance, to misunderstand apprenticeships as something for students who do not perform well in school? “The silver bullet,” says Dr. Carnevale, is to add “more training opportunities during and after high school. And whatever you do with training, you need to call it college. You want to make people feel good about the path they choose.”

The Gold Standard

At more than $80,000, Switzerland’s per capita income is the fourth-highest in the world. Switzerland has one of the most innovative economies in the world, and its total unemployment rate is below 4 percent. Switzerland has been deftly managing the 21st-century economic changes of increasing competition, automation, and globalization. A 2015 report by the (U.S-based) National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), finds that Switzerland’s vocational system has been a major contributor to the country's economic success.

The report explains how Swiss businesses play a central role in training Switzerland’s highly skilled workforce, and showcases the seamless connection between vocational schools and the country’s broader education system.

New Opportunities for Weak Students

Since 2006, the Lift project has been helping weak students improve their chances of being accepted for an apprenticeship. Today, 2,500 small and medium-sized companies are participating in Lift. 


Please the Apprenticeship Resources page for additional reading.