America’s Apprenticeship Renaissance: Swiss-Style Vocational Education in the United States

Switzerland’s apprenticeship system combines vocational training with a paid job. After choosing a job path—be it a traditional trade or a job in IT—an apprentice will spend part of the week in the classroom (vocational education), and the other part gaining skills through on-the-job work experience (the apprenticeship). In the United States, apprenticeships are making a comeback with support from both the public and private sector.

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by Karina Rollins

Apprenticeship in America

In colonial America, apprenticeships were widespread, just as they were in the Old World. Apprentices in those days, however, lived with their masters and were bound to them like indentured servants. Such “indentures” were forerunners of today’s apprenticeship agreements.

Unlike the Old World, however—where apprenticeships have expanded to modern-day jobs and are flourishing today, notably in Switzerland—apprenticeships in America gradually declined in popularity. Many people may not know that the United States has a national system of registered apprenticeships. This system has existed in the U.S. since 1937, when Congress enacted the National Apprenticeship Act to allow the federal government to regulate apprenticeship programs, do away with “indentures,” and implement fairness and safety standards. Yet in modern times, the country has only had roughly 500,000 apprentices in any given year, and career options have been limited.

The image of apprenticeships in modern America has become one of manual labor for students with poor grades. In a country where an ever-more-expensive college degree has come to be seen as the only path to a “good job,” this misconception about apprenticeships is in dire need of correction. Fortunately, this correction has started to take course.

Apprenticeship Comeback Due to Partnerships. In October 2019,U.S. Representative from New Jersey Donald Norcross (YL 2006) hosted an ASF Gallatin Forum on “Innovation in Education: Apprenticeships in America” at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC. Representative Norcross himself started as an electrician apprentice in the United States. He spoke of how the apprenticeship “opened my eyes, changed how I look at the world.”

The key to successful apprenticeships—whether in Switzerland or the U.S.—is partnerships. In the U.S., community colleges have shown themselves to be ideal partners for businesses. Apprentices attend a community college for their vocational education, and learn job skills while working for a company.

One such partnership is between Zurich North America (a subsidiary of Zurich Insurance), headquartered in Schaumburg, Illinois, and Harper College in Palatine, Illinois—and representatives from both organizations traveled to Washington for the Gallatin Forum. Justin Williams, an underwriting account associate at Zurich North America, was also at the forum to praise his experience as a two-year apprentice with Zurich. Williams was part of the first cohort of apprentices in 2016, and his apprenticeship is what landed him his job.  

The government is also involved in the apprenticeship comeback. Charles Drummond of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) was at the Gallatin Forum to speak about the apprenticeship programs run by the DOL Office of Apprenticeship. Drummond pointed out that apprenticeship graduates earn an average salary of $70,000 per year—which is higher than the average for many college graduates.

Businesses have hired more than 655,000 new apprentices since January 1, 2017—the largest increase since registered apprenticeships were created in 1937. More than 950 occupations are now officially eligible to offer apprenticeships. In August 2018, the DOL launched a special website, Apprenticeship.gov, which “offers career seekers a platform to search for apprenticeships by city, state and occupation, as well as connect[ing] job seekers to high-skilled high-paying careers.”

U.S.-Swiss Memorandum of UnderstandingIn December 2018, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, and Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann signed a Memorandum of Understanding on apprenticeships. The MOU is an agreement to build on existing collaboration in workforce development between Switzerland and the United States. Swiss Ambassador to the U.S. Martin Dahinden, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Ed McMullen (YL 1995), and Ivanka Trump attended the signing ceremony for the MOU.

Ambassador McMullen, an active supporter of the MOU, spoke at the signing ceremony, calling the MOU “another milestone that further deepens our countries’ close bilateral ties.”  The ceremony was held—fittingly—at Northern Virginia Community College. Community colleges are ideal partners for vocational education in the U.S.

The new MOU replaced a similar one signed in 2015 by the Swiss government and the Obama Administration. President Obama’s ambassador to Switzerland, Suzi LeVine, was and continues to be a strong proponent of creating Swiss-style apprenticeships in the United States. Following her return to the U.S., she led a delegation from Washington State, including Governor Jay Inslee, on a four-day study trip to Switzerland in 2017 to learn about the Swiss apprenticeship system.

In December 2017, Governor Inslee awarded $6.4 million to create “career connections” for 29,000 young people through apprenticeships, internships, and other programs. “A four-year degree isn’t the only path to a fulfilling career,” stated Governor Inslee. “Business leaders have told us they are looking for talent in everything from information technology to health care,” said the governor. Indeed, in the United States, many small business owners lament the fact that they do not have a workforce to fill the jobs, while many recent college graduates move back in with their parents because they lack specific job skills—and often have to pay off enormous student loans.

Recognizing the Value of Apprenticeships in the U.S. and Saying Goodbye to the College-Only Track. More and more states are passing laws to support career education and preparation, and many are interested in emulating the Swiss apprenticeship model. 

Maryland, which has two apprenticeship programs, offers more than 10,000 teens and adults job opportunities in 21st-century fields (from health care to cybersecurity) and traditional areas alike. The state is currently expanding its youth program, Apprenticeship Maryland. As part of this expansion, State Senator Cory McCray (YL 2017) from Baltimore, started an apprenticeship pilot program in late 2019, including an apprenticeship tour for 40 Baltimore high school students.

 The State of Wisconsin, which created the first state apprenticeship system in 1911, has been expanding apprenticeships, and held the 27th Biennial Wisconsin Apprenticeship Conference in March 2019. The Center of the American Experiment in Minnesota, published “No Four-Year Degree Required,” examining “a selection of in-demand careers” in the state. In summer 2018, an education expert from Switzerland addressed Indiana’s Interim Study Committee on Education—the state is considering more high school apprenticeships to fill jobs.

In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper launched a state-wide apprenticeship system that rebrands apprenticeships as a beginning, instead of an end, of a career path. Local school districts and community colleges are involved in the program. Now, Colorado’s goal is to enroll one in 10 students in an apprenticeship by 2027

Pennsylvania offers vocational education through its “career and technical education centers” across the state.

President Trump is known for his interest in Swiss-Style apprenticeship programs, as were members of the Obama Administration, including Ambassador LeVine and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. In his 2020 State of the Union address, President Trump issued a call to fund apprenticeships across America: "Tonight, I ask Congress to support our students and back my plan to offer vocational and technical education in every single high school in America."

There is bi-partisan consensus that apprenticeships, especially those in line with market demand, are the way for young Americans to receive useful job training and establish a career path. It is also a way to close the U.S. skills gap.

Apprenticeship Renaissance. Is there an apprenticeship renaissance in the United States? Careful observers believe there is. The Friends of Switzerland awarded its 2018 Stratton Prize for Intercultural Achievement to Suzi and Eric LeVine, honoring the couple for their role in America’s “Apprenticeship Renaissance.” The American Swiss Foundation held a Building Bridges Leadership Retreat on the “Apprenticeship Renaissance in America” in 2018.

And, the faces of American apprentices are beginning to appear, showing how the idea of re-invigorated apprenticeships in America has evolved to real-life results. An example is Justin Williams, as mentioned above. Another, is North Carolina high school grad Simon Mitchell, who chose a four-year Swiss-style apprenticeship at the Swiss tech firm Bühler instead of a traditional college education. Simon and his three fellow apprentices graduated in late 2018, and even celebrated their graduation at company headquarters in Switzerland.

Challenges and Encouragement. Since a vocational education system cannot work in a vacuum—it is an interlinked network that requires “buy in” not only from companies, but from the traditional education system, various levels of government, and the general public (attitudes matter)—the biggest challenge in the United States is how to build such “eco-systems.”

In the United States, up to half of state budgets go to education funding, with powerful lobbies and unions that control spending and management. Americans tend to believe that a college degree is the only way to get a decent job—yet often cannot find a job after graduation and are routinely left with $100,000 loans to pay off.  A 2016 Citizens Bank survey reported that millennials are starting to express buyer’s remorse for their expensive educations that cannot guarantee them a job when they graduate. Forty percent said that had they fully understood the cost, they would not have gone to college.

Challenging as establishing a dual-education system in the United States will be, especially given the many misconceptions, the apprenticeship system enjoys growing bipartisan political support, as well as enthusiasm from a broad range of business sectors. Especially encouraging is that Americans under age 40 generally have far fewer negative assumptions about apprenticeships. In November 2019, the Department of Labor held is fifth annual National Apprenticeship Week, and it is launching a nationwide campaign to show Americans that far from being a dusty throwback, apprenticeships are modern and vibrant.

Donald Norcross credits his “other four-year degree” as an electrician’s apprentice with taking him “from construction work to Congress,” and wants to break down the stigma of apprenticeships in the United States.  The message that Americans should hear is: Apprenticeships do not cut young people off from options; they give young people more options.

Apprenticeship in Switzerland

A career through vocational training does not mean a low-skill blue-collar job; many apprentices continue on to higher education—and those with such mixed paths actually do better in the job world than those who go straight to higher education without vocational training.

In Switzerland, apprentices can learn about and work in roughly 230 occupations, including jobs in the insurance, banking, and IT fields. The programs—a combination of practical on-the-job learning and classroom time, take three to four years. Program applicants—generally 15 or 16 years old—apply for an apprenticeship directly with the company of their choice. (Companies must be licensed by the government for apprenticeship training.)

Apprenticeships are not government subsidized nor do apprentices pay tuition. Quite the opposite: Apprentices are paid a small wage. In order to ensure that the investment pays off and jobs are available for apprentices after graduation, employers decide in which professions to offer apprenticeships, depending on the needs of the labor market. Apprentices spend roughly 80 percent of the time on the job, and 20 percent in a vocational school with an occupation-specific curriculum.

The government does, however, play an important role: Entrance and final exams are federally regulated in order to guarantee uniform quality, and the federal “graduation” certificates are accepted and respected nationwide.

Apprenticeships are part of an interlinked system that consists of three parts: (1) the federal government, (2) the “state” level (cantons), and (3) the private sector.

The involvement of the 26 cantonal departments of education and labor ensures that the system is adaptive to local needs. The interplay of the three parts also allows the labor market to determine how many apprenticeships are needed for a given occupation. It would not be helpful, for instance, if the government determined that 2,000 apprenticeships are needed in a particular region or profession, when the local economy might need only 200—which would leave 1,800 unemployed.

It Pays to Invest in Apprenticeships. The total costs of one apprentice for the entire training period—including schooling and apprentice wages—are between $70,000 and $150,000. This is the short-term gross cost for a long-term net benefit: a more highly skilled and better qualified workforce, higher quality products, and better recruitment options in the labor market due to reputation—resulting in an overall less costly system, despite the up-front costs.

Apprentices do real work, and earn real wages—between $500 per month (in the first year) and $2,000 per month (in the last year). The percentage of working time spent on skilled tasks ranges from roughly 60 percent of the time at the company (first year) to 90 percent (last year). The monetary value of an apprentice’s working time can equal up to $160,000.

A major component of the Swiss apprenticeship system (which the otherwise similar German system does not have, for instance) is its “permeability” (Durchlässigkeit), meaning that an apprentice is not locked into a specific career path: If he or she realizes that the first career choice was not the optimal one, the system allows the flexibility to switch programs or to enroll in a university.

Why Are the Swiss Exporting Their Apprenticeship System to the United States? Swiss companies as a group constitute the seventh-largest investor in the United States, and Swiss companies in the U.S. want to be able to hire qualified people.

In Switzerland, the private and public sectors, as well as the general public, understand that the apprenticeship system is not “giving something away,” but that it benefits Swiss companies and the Swiss economy—which means it benefits the population as a whole.

This cohesive, positive, and proven attitude is showing signs of taking hold in the United States. May the renaissance take flight.

For more information, see ASF’s Apprenticeship: Information and Resources page.