Swiss apprenticeships: A model for the Union
By Sophie Petitjean | Thursday 19 April 2012
The Swiss apprenticeship model, based strongly on in-company training, is often cited as an example by its European neighbours. And rightly so, because the Swiss Confederation has a youth unemployment rate of 3.4% (equal to that of the active population) and an early school leaving rate of only 7.6%, while the European averages for these two indicators are 22.4% and 14.4%, respectively. “In Switzerland, the great majority of young people learn to work in a professional environment, with a team, which partially explains the low unemployment rate in Switzerland,” explains François Baur, who represents Swiss employers in Brussels.
In the Swiss educational system, after compulsory schooling, students can continue general training or go into vocational training. Two thirds of young people choose the latter option, the main characteristic of which is that it alternates classroom learning with work experience in a company. Students spend one to two days in class in a vocational training school and the rest of the week working in a company. The working relationship is governed by an apprenticeship contract, implementation of which is checked by apprenticeship committees. According to the apprenticeship barometer, in 2010, 87,000 apprenticeships were filled and 6,500 places remained vacant. Among the 230 available training options, the business and health ones are selected most often. However, the Swiss Federal Statistical Office estimates that there will be a 6% decrease in new entrants between 2010 and 2020.
THREE P’S OF SUCCESS
Switzerland is not the only country to provide vocational training: this approach is also used widely in Denmark, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. However, the Swiss system sets itself apart through a number of specific characteristics. These could be referred to as the ‘three P’s’: permeability, partnership and profit. The confederation makes a point of ensuring that its training schemes are permeable, so that learners can take up more demanding learning opportunities later or change activity during their career without wasting time. Partnership between companies, professional associations, the state and schools is another ingredient of the Swiss model. According to Baur, it is even the key to success. “Sector-based professional federations participate in the development of school curricula. The advantage is that curricula are perfectly up-to-date with the latest developments in the branch and qualifications are recognised by the entire profession.” The third and last characteristic is shared profit. The website
www.formationprofessionnelleplus.ch informs young people and businesses about vocational training possibilities as follows: “Apprenticeships are a profitable activity: two thirds of apprentices generate a net profit by the end of their training (according to a 2004 study, the gross costs of training amount to €3.9 billion, compared with €4.3 billion in productive activities by trainees - ie CHF4.7 billion, compared with CHF5.2 billion). Apart from the purely economic aspects, there are many other reasons to consider vocational training: 1. providing training today means having enough qualified staff tomorrow; 2. training is in everyone’s interest since learners are productive and contribute to the company’s success; 3. training is fashionable because it adds a young touch; 4. training supports the economy and society; and 5. training improves a company’s image.” Host companies receive a vignette that identifies their commitment to vocational training.
For Calixe Cathomen, a former apprentice who now works as a draughtsman in the building sector, the Swiss apprenticeship system offers many advantages: “In some countries, apprenticeships are held in low esteem compared with university education. This is also true in Switzerland, but to a much lesser extent. I have a federal vocational training diploma [earned after four years of apprenticeship - Ed] and I think that it has opened a lot of doors for me. In any case it has given me recognition. […] As a rule, I would say that people who earn their federal vocational diploma find work more easily than an ordinary worker, thanks to knowledge learned on the ground,” he notes, while adding that the early years were not easy. “In the beginning, I didn’t earn much. The first year, I received around €200. This amount rose over the years, reaching €1,000 at the end of the fourth year. All that is standardised through minimum rates, but that does not stop some companies from taking on apprentices because it costs them less than an older employee,” he adds.
SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
Unlike in Switzerland, apprenticeships are relatively poorly developed in the European Union. Some countries – like Sweden, Spain, Finland, Greece, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Belgium – offer only theoretical vocational training options.
Based partially on the Swiss model, on 6 March, the European federation of private employers, BusinessEurope, presented a number of recommendations to improve the quality and image of apprenticeship and thus reduce the youth unemployment rate. It first suggests that the European Union should allocate a minimum share of the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Erasmus for All programme to give a boost to member states that wish to put in place, reform and/or expand their dual apprenticeship system. BusinessEurope then makes a number of recommendations to member states: to receive EU funds, member states should offer an excellent education system that prepares pupils to learn on the job; establish framework conditions for dual apprenticeship systems; and include in-company training in their education systems. Lastly, employers’ organisations are invited to contribute to the development of study programmes and to inform companies about the advantages of dual apprenticeships. Companies are encouraged to provide quality apprenticeships, sign a contract with the apprentice and encourage employers to share their experience as former apprentices. For Baur, what is most important is to change mentalities. “Companies have to understand that it is in their interest to take on apprentices and professional federations have to get involved. They should not do all the work for companies, but should provide the necessary framework to develop apprenticeships. An idea for some countries could be to promote the possibility for companies to deduct certain expenses related to apprenticeships,” he explains.
With youth unemployment rising in Europe, the 27 and the Commission seem increasingly inclined to promote apprenticeships although they point out that there is no single solution that suits everyone. “Every country has to adopt its own measures in terms of its socio-economic situation,” according to the Commission’s DG Education and Culture. It could nevertheless support this approach in its country recommendations, to be presented in June 2012.
“Apprenticeships are a profitable activity: two thirds of apprentices generate a net profit by the end of their training”
Other areas of collaboration
Switzerland has participated, since 1 January 2011, in the European lifelong learning framework programme (LLP), which includes Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Comenius and Grundtvig. It has already announced its intention to take part in the new generation Erasmus for All programmes 2014-2020. In parallel, the Swiss Confederation is currently developing a national certification framework (CNC-CH) and supplements to vocational training diplomas to meet the Copenhagen process objectives. This process is an EU strategy to strengthen international cooperation in vocational training and improve the comparability, transparency and permeability of general training and vocational training.