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What we can learn from the Swiss Apprenticeship system?

08-Sep-2014 Education Consultant Dave Turner has been in contact with families, teachers and employers involved in the apprenticeship system in Switzerland for the past thirty years and for the last three years has been carrying out research on VET training and the experiences of their young apprentices.

In Switzerland there is a positive correlation between the apprenticeship system and economic productivity. Mr Turner explained employers find it more economically productive to foster young talent within their organisation than simply by hiring from university or following another apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships are also part of "the Swiss Way”, that is working for the common good.  As employers, apprentices, their parents, and educators contribute equally to the system, this has a positive impact for all.

Early adoption

The Swiss apprenticeship system encourages early adoption of workplace training, with young people from 15 years of age taking part. Furthermore, 70 per cent of all 15 to 19 year olds in Switzerland participate in an apprenticeship, and there is a 91% completion rate.

People in apprenticeships work on-site 3 to 4 days a week, and are in the classroom 1 to 2 days a week. Mr Turner said that a key message of the Swiss system is that "work based learning leads and the classroom teaching and learning follows". This is quite different to the Australian approach.

"The difference is, and what we can learn, is that the partnership between employers and education in Switzerland vocational learning is systemic and it's strategic. It is part of the design of the education experience for 15 to 19 year olds," Mr Turner stated. "It's not employers simply helping out - they are a full strategic partner."

Careers education

Switzerland has a thorough and structured careers education programme between years 7 and 10. Each child has a lesson in careers education each week. They also have access to independent career counsellors. This means students who are unsure of the career direction that they would like to take at the end of year 9 are encouraged in year 10 to try different pathways to establish what they would like to do.

Mr Turner emphasised this is an important part of the Swiss system as it encourages students to have a career in mind before they leave school. This positively impacts on the youth unemployment rate.

The 2012 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) skills strategy  emphasises that bringing together education and the world of employment and skills-based learning is important for addressing youth unemployment in the Western world.

"Increasingly there are people saying, what can we do to help a young person have a pathway when they leave school, rather than falling into the gap between school and work and being at risk of unemployment, and then the nation trying to step in and support them to get out of it," Mr Turner said.

The skills pathway

Both vocational and academic roles are equally valued in Switzerland, with training considered a pathway, not only a destination. Students who enter vocational training early can and do still attend university when they leave school and complete their apprenticeship.

In Switzerland, young people choose from around 240 occupations. Students are encouraged to sample the different professions before they commit to an apprenticeship programme. Mr Turner said one teenager he interviewed had week-long placements at nine organisations in Year 9 before finding the occupation he felt was right for him.

Young people are also not expected to stay in this occupation for the long term. Mr Turner said that apprentices are able to leap-frog to a degree and about 10 per cent do a baccalaureate or top up their training academically.

"That improves the status of vocational education because it is not seen as a second-rate alternative to university," explained Mr Turner. "That really helps parents support their kids to choose an apprenticeship because there is no feeling that that choice will forever eliminate the chances of going to university."

Every student in Switzerland who has completed an apprenticeship leaves school at 19 in an established pathway - whether it is vocational or academic.

The cultural perspective of apprenticeships

There is also a cultural difference in the way that apprenticeships are considered in the Swiss system, Mr Turner explained. Parents are very encouraging of their children and vocational training is just as important as academic based learning.
Parents are willing to support their children through the apprenticeship programme, which is important as a first year apprentice in Switzerland earns only 10 per cent of the average wage.

Executives in Switzerland have a similar perspective as many of them have taken the vocational route themselves. Mr Turner states that most CEOs and managers of larger enterprises in Australia are not graduates of an apprenticeship or VET programme so they are likely to have a limited understanding of what it entails.

Every business that takes part in the apprenticeship system in Switzerland must have someone within the organisation who has completed mentorship training. This mentor is responsible for nurturing, supporting and monitoring the apprentices in their care.

"We do not have that across Australia. We do not have a situation where we have people who have undertaken training on the issues of adolescence and the challenges that come up in the workplace," Mr Turner said.

Mr Turner said that Australian group training organisations should be both affirmed and inspired by the Swiss Apprenticeship system. Australia has many of the ingredients in place, yet there is still a lot to learn from the more strategic Swiss system, however remembering that each of the Australian and Swiss cultures is unique and should develop their systems as such.