Learning from the Swiss system of apprenticeships

When Doug Richard was asked about the successful Swiss system for apprenticeships at the launch of the call for evidence for his Review, he correctly highlighted the differences in the scale and complexity of our respective economies. And yet there is something beguiling about the simplicity that the Swiss have achieved in their arrangements. A group of us visited recently to see what lessons there were to learn.

An apprenticeship is the most common way by which young people start their working lives in Switzerland. They know this is their preferred pathway from an early age and they and their families set out to research and find the best employment opportunity they can. Employers gear their annual recruitment around school leavers becoming available and let it be known how many recruits they expect to need up to a year in advance. Simple!

There are a number of similarities in our systems, including the wide range of potential occupations for apprentices and the popularity of business and service sector apprenticeships. But inevitably the differences are of greater interest.

Employer ownership of apprenticeships was very evident. There was no discussion about an ‘employer contribution’.

The Swiss employers that we met do not seem as concerned as us about not continuing to employ apprentices themselves at the end of their apprenticeship. They employ those they need and feel that the rest have had a great training experience and will have no problem getting work. With one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world, they look to be proved right.

They had a simple one year bridging course for those who needed a pre-apprenticeship that would be worth examining as we strengthen our apprenticeship progression arrangements.

It was striking how few young people undertake a vocational course that is not an apprenticeship. Because of the dual system and an acceptance that an apprenticeship is the superior ‘offer’ for a young person, there is little appetite for vocational courses. In effect they are seen as sub-standard Apprenticeships ie lacking an employer and real employment. They were surprised how many vocational courses were offered in the UK.

The comparative length of apprenticeships was of course very interesting following our move to minimum one year duration. International colleagues are interested in the flexibility of our system but the short duration apprenticeships troubled them (as they did us). The remaining two year apprenticeships in Switzerland are disappearing quickly in favour of longer ones. I have asked to see the detail of some of the frameworks where I know the content is pretty demanding here but the Swiss take longer in order to see the differences. The frameworks contain some more general education elements and a lot more on languages. But my strong impression was that there was no rush to complete an apprenticeship and that the apprentices and their employers took all the time they needed to learn and practice their skills. Their results in international skills competitions suggest the final learning levels are very impressive.

Employer ownership of apprenticeships was very evident. There was no discussion about an ‘employer contribution’. I am not sure this would be a question they would understand easily. They owned and managed the training. The local college (typically) provided the necessary off the job knowledge ie the provider and the state made the contribution.

Transparency seemed to act as a powerful lever to drive up standards through shared learning and continuous improvement”

Having read the recent CBI Skills Survey and the strong feelings by employers that vocational qualifications need to be made more relevant to the needs of business, the employers we met had absolute confidence in the standards that they have helped set. This is where Doug Richard’s point about scale came home to me. There are fewer employer players in the skills system plus strong links to trade bodies. This gave employers the confidence that they truly influenced the skills that were being produced. As a result they did not want to have extra flexibility or keep tinkering with the standards. They knew what they were getting, liked it and, if anything needed adding, they would add it themselves.

It is often the case that you are taken aback by practices in other countries that feel very natural there. For example, in Switzerland (as in some other countries), the successful completion of an apprenticeship entitles you to a University place in your specialist area. Employers are also asked to sign off the work of apprentices in other companies. When we visited Credit Suisse, they had experts from rival companies testing their apprentices. This transparency seemed to act as a powerful lever to drive up standards through shared learning and continuous improvement.

There was a great deal more of interest but you sensed the relative economic and business stability. The best employers saw apprenticeships as the primary vehicle for their future supply of young people who could be trained and moulded for their business or to help the economy at large. Simple and impressive.

David Way is interim chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service

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