Apprenticeship Education in Switzerland: Building Bridges Conference Report

At a recent “Building Bridges” conference on Apprenticeship in Switzerland, American Swiss Foundation members and experts discussed what the United States can learn from Switzerland about apprenticeships and vocational education (the dual-education system).

The 40 participants from both countries included state office holders, businesspeople and entrepreneurs, academics and researchers, journalists, lawyers, and members of the financial sector, more than half of whom are Young Leaders (YLs). The following day, the group visited the Schindler Group headquarters in nearby Ebikon, meeting with company executives and apprentices. A summary of the conference findings and visit is presented here.

Apprenticeship: A College Degree Should Not Be the Only Path to Success

A career through vocational training does not mean a low-skill blue-collar job; many participants 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 plays 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 governments 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.

U.S. Interest in Apprenticeships

As of January 2017, 30 Swiss companies offered apprenticeships at their locations in the United States. The Departments of Labor and Education now support vocational training programs, so far with $265 million. A growing number of policymakers on both sides of the aisle are exploring the idea of establishing apprenticeships in the United States.

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. More and more Americans believe that attending college 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.

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 tend to have far fewer negative assumptions about apprenticeships. In June 2017, the Select USA Investment Summit, on bringing more investment to the U.S., will feature apprenticeships on the agenda.

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.

In Pennsylvania, the local Chamber of Commerce is developing a vocational-education curriculum with the local school district for a three-year program, to be launched in the fall of 2017. 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.

The message that Americans should hear is: Apprenticeships do not cut young people off from options, they give young people more options.

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.

Face to Face with the 21st-Century Apprentice at Schindler Group Headquarters

A visit to the headquarters of the Schindler Group—global manufacturer of elevators, escalators, and moveable walkways—allowed the conference participants to meet company executives, tour the factory floor, and watch individual demonstrations by Schindler apprentices.

Schindler trains apprentices at its headquarters in Ebikon and 16 other locations in 12 technical and commercial professions. Apprenticeships are encouraged and supported individually—meaning that around 170 Schindler employees work directly with apprentices (one employee is paired with two apprentices).

The apprenticeship training center at Schindler has three pillars: (1) education and training (job-specific training in the classroom), (2) production (learning on the job, including customer engagement), and (3) human resources (conducts recruiting and coaching, offers personnel support). As is standard in Switzerland, applicants are 15 or 16 years of age, and enroll in programs that last three or four years.

The 12 professions that can be learned at Schindler range from elevator fitter to designer to media technician. The average apprentice’s starting salary is CH 14,000 per year (ending salaries are around CH 60,000), and 70 percent of apprentices remain at Schindler in full-time positions after completing the program. Around 20 percent go on to a university of applied sciences, and around 10 percent choose a different career path. (The permeability/flexibility discussed above.)

Each year, Schindler typically receives 10 times more apprenticeship applications than there are positions.  As part of their schooling, some Schindler apprentices learn French, and all of them learn English. It was in English that the young apprentices explained what they were working on—from designing new elevator models at a computer to machining a specific elevator component on the factory floor.

With ever-faster technological developments, Schindler sees its apprenticeship program as future-oriented: “education today, for tomorrow’s job.” Innovation has long been an integral part of Schindler, and the company is ready to teach its apprentices how to work with today’s “megatrends”: urbanization and wealth creation (both of which translate to higher demand), and energy efficiency and demographic changes (more and more people are concerned about saving energy and protecting the environment).


Special thanks to the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation for making this conference possible.


Please see the Apprenticeship Resources page for additional reading.