While nearly half of young people in some European countries cannot find work, a unique training programme in Switzerland has ensured jobs for nearly all who want one.
More than 24 million people in the European Union are unemployed, and nearly 5.2 million of them are aged between 15-24.
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Youth unemployment rates in Italy, Spain, Greece and Croatia are particularly staggering, hovering at the 50 percent mark. In a startling contrast, however, Switzerland boasts a youth unemployment rate of a mere 3.2 percent, even among those without a college degree.
Switzerland has never shared the unemployment concerns of its neighbours. Not part of the European Union or the eurozone, the alpine country fared better during the economic downturn than its EU counterparts, with unemployment at the end of 2007 reaching a mere 2.8 percent.
For many years, Switzerland’s jobless rate was one percent or less, although it reached as high as 5.7 percent during the 1990s. The backbone of its strong economy, say industry leaders, is a versatile and dynamic apprenticeship programme that ensures a consistent, competitive workforce trained in precisely the skills that the ever-changing market demands.
Eliminating the ‘knowledge gap’
From information technology to cabinetry to laboratory technicians, Swiss students have the option to participate in early career training and apprenticeships in 230 different occupations. Nearly two-thirds of Swiss high school graduates participate in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) programme, which combines classroom training with practical work experience over a four-year apprenticeship programme.
Eighty-thousand people have participated in the programme.
Erich Kofler, the apprenticeships coordinator for the Basel-based pharmaceutical company Novartis, told Al Jazeera the programme helps ensure Swiss industries don’t face a worker shortage in the future. “Because of the CTE, we know we won’t have a knowledge gap,” Kofler said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “We can offer apprenticeships in precisely the areas we need, which change from year to year.” Novartis is working with 100 apprentices in 2014, and has had 300 to date.
Mandatory schooling ends in Switzerland at the ninth grade, when students are about 15-16 years old. In the seventh grade, teachers encourage students to investigate various apprenticeship options to discover what interests them, and then participate in a “test” apprenticeship lasting about three weeks.
|Joel Cox participated in an unique apprenticeship programme [Al Jazeera]
‘Trying to find my niche’
After finishing school, Joel Cox participated in the programme for cabinetry. The training included four days a week of hands-on training with an employer, and one day a week studying trade theory, drafting, mathematics and general studies. He ultimately earned a Kitchen Design certificate issued by the Swiss Cabinetry Association.
“I worked for several firms in Switzerland after I graduated in 2001,” Cox told Al Jazeera. “I was trying to find my niche, so I tried different things with various firms as they all specialise in different areas of cabinetry.”
Including his apprenticeship, Cox worked as a cabinet maker in Switzerland for nine years before he was recruited by a US firm and moved to Los Angeles to continue work in cabinetry.
Students who are unable to find an interest area are encouraged to participate in a one-year training programme designed to increase their soft skills, including personal development, writing an application, and interviewing skills.
“Young professionals who opt to continue their education find they can enter the workforce without debt, and already integrated into the workforce,” said Salome Ramseier, head of communications for the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, DC.
“CTE is firmly anchored in Switzerland’s educational system. The private sector takes great pride in offering apprenticeships and benefits from a highly skilled workforce, ready for lifelong learning and open to acquiring additional qualifications.”
Switzerland is hardly the only European country offering apprenticeships. Germany offers training in nearly 340 occupations, with typical programmes lasting 24-40 months. Italy offers apprenticeships in most of the professional sectors, which include two years’ additional training past mandatory schooling, and opportunities for advanced education.
In Greece, local industry partners with government entities to provide unemployed youth with training and certifications in various skill sets.
However, cost is one impediment to the Swiss-style of apprenticeships being adopted more universally throughout Europe. Sponsoring companies pay apprentices a salary, benefits, and tuition, among other perks, and in return have an employee who is attending schooling, and thus not working, one or more days per week.
The Swiss system of apprenticeship is so successful it is being adopted in the United States, including at the US headquarters of the Swiss manufacturing company Daetwyler. Over the past two decades, Daetwyler has participated in the Apprenticeship 2000 programme, a North Carolina-based initiative that mimics the Swiss model.
We realised early on that if we didn't incorporate apprenticeships that we would be severely lacking in technical expertise, and not able to compete on a continual basis.
Importing the Swiss model
“We realised early on that if we didn’t incorporate apprenticeships that we would be severely lacking in technical expertise, and not able to compete on a continual basis,” Bob Romanelli, Daetwyler’s apprenticeship coordinator, told Al Jazeera.
Romanelli said the number of apprentices Daetwyler accepts varies from year to year, based on market conditions and interested candidates. “Our apprentices train in every department, so we have well-rounded, well-trained employees that can continue with the company if they want to pursue a different career path, or our needs change.”
At Daetwyler, the cost of bringing one apprentice through the programme is $150,000, including tuition, salary, benefits, and a guaranteed position upon completion of the four-year practical and educational training.
There are drawbacks, however. While US companies are importing the Swiss model, Cox said he wasn’t able to export his training so easily. After his position in Los Angeles ended, Cox, who has dual US-Swiss citizenship, wanted to change professions, but wasn’t clear on a new direction.
“Without any sort of academic history, an education from any accredited university was out of the question. As far as they were concerned, I didn’t even have a high school degree,” Cox said. “My friend’s girlfriend told me about community college and that they accepted anyone. I decided to give it a shot so I visited CCBC [Community College of Baltimore County] one week before classes started and enrolled the same day.”
Two years later, Cox received a full tuition scholarship to the University of Maryland, where he’s pursuing a double major in finance and accounting.
“It’s not typical in Switzerland for people to go back to school at the age of 30, much less change professions. So, I actually feel extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to experience something new,” Cox said. “That said, my training was valuable given the circumstances at the time.”