How can Washington offer more career options to students? Part of the answer can be found in Switzerland

“We have to stop telling our kids that a four-year degree is the only way to start their paths to success. Most of them will require education and training after high school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to start with a four-year college degree.”

Those were Gov. Jay Inslee’s words in May when he launched his Career Connect Washington initiative and announced his goal of connecting 100,000 students to career-connected learning opportunities in the next five years.

And that goal is what inspired a high-level delegation of leaders traveling to Switzerland this month for an immersive four-day study mission to learn about the country’s widely lauded apprenticeship system.

Approximately 45 delegates representing business, labor, education, philanthropy and government organizations learned how the country has created an ecosystem in which business, government, and education come together as partners to create apprenticeship pathways to diverse careers. Approximately 70 percent of young people choose apprenticeships instead of traditional high school.

The delegation visited leading Swiss businesses, apprentice training centers, career counseling centers and the country’s top university to meet with apprentices, educators, parents, researchers, government officials and business leaders.

On the third day of the study mission in Switzerland, the delegation visits LIBS, a centralized apprenticeship facility that conducts the first two years of apprenticeships for advanced manufacturing training and IT apprenticeships. Ninety different companies support the program and employ the apprentices. (Official Office of the Governor photo)

“In Switzerland, the system is designed for everyone and there is no stigma,” said Suzi LeVine, former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and a delegation co-chair along with her husband, Eric LeVine. “What Eric and I saw during my time as ambassador and what our delegation saw during our visit, is that apprenticeship is the ultimate in project-based learning and is the best delivery vehicle for 21st century skills.”

Swiss businesses are creators, not just consumers of talent. They pay for about 60 percent of the costs of the country’s apprenticeship program and most see a 7–10 percent return within three to four years, according to professor Stefan Wolter, director of the Swiss Coordination Center for Research in Education, who presented his research to the delegation on their first night in Bern.

The notion that shared investment in apprenticeship is beneficial to business was reinforced multiple times as the delegation met with business leaders from various sectors including advanced manufacturing, health care, telecommunications, and information and communications technology. Businesses in many sectors come together in associations to develop the competencies and curriculum they think is most necessary for their respective professions. To keep pace with innovation, businesses work together to update the standards every five years.

Arthur Glattli, managing director for the manufacturer’s association, Swissmem, told delegates: “When you do it all together, it’s a win-win situation. It levers up the system. Workers learn from each other. It’s not a cost, it’s an investment.”

Volker Stephan, a senior human resources official for ABB, said apprenticeship is a key strategy to building a workforce that can adapt to changing needs. “There are basic skills people need to know, however we need people who can think more widely and learn to be solution-providers.”

For ABB, this philosophy isn’t just a talking point. The company helped launch libs, an intermediary organization that trains the apprentices for their first two years. Libs focuses on advanced manufacturing, IT and commercial jobs and partners with 90 businesses.

In Switzerland, getting into certain apprenticeships can be just as competitive as university admission. At Swisscom, the nation’s leading telecommunications provider, only a few hundred apprentices are hired each year out of thousands of applications. At ETH Zurich, it is more competitive to become an apprentice in their physics department than it is to become a student.

And apprentices often work their way to highly successful and executive level positions. ABB’s chairman, Peter Voser, started as an apprentice, as did Ingo Fritsche, the CEO of libs.

On the third day, members of the apprenticeship study-mission delegation visit ABB, the company that launched LIBS, to see its advanced manufacturing and IT apprenticeship program. (ABB photo)

Washington state has some successful paid youth apprenticeship programs underway such as AJAC. But Inslee hopes delegates have been inspired to become part of his effort to create a comprehensive system with business leading. Several of the delegates are also part of Inslee’s Career Connect Washington task force, which will deliver a report early in January outlining recommended next steps.

“Not everything about the Swiss system is right for Washington, but if there’s one thing we learned it’s how absolutely necessary it is for this to be a true collaboration and partnership between business, government and education,” Inslee said. “Both our residents and our businesses can benefit from a system like this. Our kids and our communities will benefit from robust job training with an unlimited set of pathways that also provides the enormous sense of pride and dignity that comes from paid work, and our businesses will benefit from a highly skilled workforce capable of meeting their needs. This is an exciting effort and I appreciate the commitments of so many leaders to help make this happen.”

Permeability is paramount: Busting the myth that apprenticeship locks you into one job

Many Americans think that Swiss apprentices are forced to choose a career while in their teens and are locked into that one career path. The reality couldn’t be more different.

The notion of “permeability” is extremely important to both young people and employers in the Swiss system. Permeability means someone who completes an apprenticeship in Switzerland can, if they choose, do another apprenticeship or go straight into the workforce, or go on to higher education. It is not uncommon for students to begin their education in an apprenticeship program and then go on to enroll in university, or start in one career but change to something very different after a few years of working. Alternatively, those going to high school who want tangible skills can go on to do apprenticeship afterward.

Here’s how it works:

  • Just as states in the U.S. are responsible for delivering education services to students, cantons in Switzerland take on primary responsibility for education.
  • All students complete what they call “compulsory school,” which goes until ninth grade.
  • Starting in the seventh grade, companies begin doing career fairs. In the eighth grade, young people do trial apprenticeships for anywhere from one to five days in order to determine if that is where they want to apply.
  • Once a student completes compulsory school, usually around the age of 14 or 15, he or she chooses one of two options: Apprenticeship (70 percent of young people do this path) or high school (30 percent do this path). Both paths can lead to higher education later.
  • Apprenticeships last three or four years, depending on the type of apprenticeship. Students apply for apprenticeship in the ninth grade, and then start the year after.
  • These are formalized programs where the apprentices spend three to four days working (and receive pay for their work), and one to two days in a classroom learning with apprentices enrolled in similar apprenticeship programs. There are about 250 professions from which to choose spanning both blue- and white-collar professions such as sports retail, mechanical engineering, banking and hairdressing. Apprentices earn a paycheck, do real work, and gain a nationally recognized credential upon at the completion of their training.
On the fourth day of the study mission in Switzerland, the delegation visits ETH Zurich, the federal technical institute, to see how the university’s apprenticeship program works. ETH has one of the most prestigious apprenticeship programs in the world, and admission into the school’s physics apprenticeship program is more competitive than admission into the university program. (Official Office of the Governor photo)

Washington State Governor's Office

News and updates from Washington state Gov.