By David Way Friday, 21 September 2012

Lessons from the Swiss apprenticeships

David Way explains why it's worth looking to the land of the cuckoo clock if we want to get the apprenticeships game right in the UK.

I recently met with a group of national employers who are concerned about youth unemployment and want to help more young people to get apprenticeships.  In discussing what more might be done, I drew on my recent visit to employers in Switzerland where there is one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. The country’s apprenticeship arrangements also consistently produce some of the highest skilled young employees in Europe.  

Especially relevant was the collective realisation that youth unemployment was something so potentially dangerous to the Swiss economic and social stability that everyone had a part to play in protecting the country against it.  When youth unemployment began to increase, employers agreed to take on extra apprentices.  They saw this as an essential investment they needed to make in their future.  

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 - a vocational ‘milk round’ - and let it be known how many recruits they expect to need up to a year in advance.  Many train more apprentices than they need themselves.  They feel that the rest have had a great training experience and will have no problem getting work.

It was striking how few young people undertake a vocational course that is not an apprenticeship. Two-year apprenticeships in Switzerland are disappearing quickly in favour of longer ones. The apprentices and their employers took all the time they needed to learn and practice their skills. 

Skills surveys of employers in the UK tell us that vocational qualifications need to be made more relevant to the needs of business.  The Swiss employers I met had absolute confidence in the standards that they have helped set. As a result they did not want to keep tinkering with the standards.  If anything needed adding to the core training, they would do it themselves.

While there has been marked progression with apprenticeships and higher education in recent years in the UK, these are stronger in Switzerland.  For example, the Professional Baccalaureate entitles successful candidates to a university place in their specialist subject area.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was to find that employers are asked to sign off the work of apprentices in other companies. This transparency and a cohort of ‘experts’ in subject areas acted as a powerful lever to drive up standards. Overall, there was no sense of constant change. Employers had clear ownership of the apprenticeship system. They mostly had everything working well and could plan and invest for their future skills needs with confidence.

So, as we continue our discussions with employers about growing the number of high quality opportunities for young people more quickly, there is plenty of food for thought from Switzerland with whom we are establishing excellent collaborative working.

David Way is chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service.

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