The blog of the Urban Institute
July 20, 2020

Three Lessons from the Swiss Apprenticeship Model to Inform Our Post-COVID-19 Recovery

July 20, 2020

Apprenticeships are an integral element of the Swiss economy. Nearly two-thirds of Swiss youth ages 16 to 18 combine school and work through the country’s vocational and education training (VET) model, learning on the job with employers, contributing to production, and learning in the classroom from a curriculum aligned with employers’ needs. Employers invest heavily in apprentices’ training to ensure classroom instruction matches workplace needs.

These investments pay off, too. Most Swiss employers recoup their investments during the apprenticeship. In Switzerland, apprentice wages start at around 12 percent of an occupation’s typical wages to offset training costs. The arrangement makes sense for employers (who get the talent they need and benefit from the apprentice’s work) and apprentices (who are paid, trained, mentored, and exposed to new opportunities).

Beyond employers and apprentices, the Swiss system of apprenticeship yields important benefits for the country’s overall economy. Typically, Switzerland has one of Europe’s highest per capita GDPs and low unemployment.

Though Swiss companies have slowed hiring during the COVID-19 downturn, they remain committed to their apprenticeship programs (PDF). It may seem counterintuitive to invest in hiring and training, but evidence suggests that countries with apprenticeship and VET systems were better able to withstand the 2008 Great Recession and avoid significant youth unemployment.

What can the US learn from the Swiss apprenticeship model?

Although the Swiss and US economies are vastly different, three lessons from the Swiss apprenticeship model could inform our post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

1. Partnerships between employers and training providers benefit everyone, including apprentices

Swiss employers hire only as many apprentices as they anticipate needing in the coming years, so the supply of training in various professions ebbs and flows with market needs. Students are trained only in occupations with available opportunities, and Swiss employers invest in this training.

In the US, mismatches between training and job opportunities are common. Training costs are typically borne by students, leaving them with debt and sometimes unclear career pathways.

Adaptations of the Swiss model in the US are promising. CareerWise Colorado is a youth apprenticeship intermediary based on the Swiss model. Our case study finds that participants in this program benefit from the intermediary’s role—which connects and supports partners like schools and employers—to create the best opportunities and outcomes for all involved.

We interviewed one of the program’s recent apprentices who completed her high school and associate’s degrees for free (paid for by the Denver Public Schools and her employer). Because of robust partnerships and the deep involvement of those providing both classroom and on-the-job training, she is embarking on a bright future as an accountant.

2. Broadening and expanding youth apprenticeship efforts in the US is a growing priority, but more work needs to be done

Despite evidence of widespread benefits and early successes, youth apprenticeship efforts in the US are far behind those in Switzerland and other parts of the world.

Right now, few young Americans participate in apprenticeships, even in states like Wisconsin, where youth apprenticeship is more common and has existed for decades (PDF). Efforts like the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship and the US Department of Labor–funded Youth Apprenticeship Intermediary work, implemented by the Urban Institute and others, have expanded such opportunities, but we could do more.

3. An economic downturn is an opportunity to maintain, or even build, a recovery workforce

Our recent conversations with employers who hire youth apprentices in the US indicated that they are reluctant to expand their programs this year because of economic uncertainty. But they are not halting their apprenticeship programs.

These employers understand that talent development is a pipeline. Without young people training alongside experienced workers, expertise and institutional knowledge could be lost. Worse still, employers could find themselves in a recovery without the talent on staff for the new work.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, building youth apprenticeship is more relevant than ever during a recession. One youth apprenticeship intermediary working with CareerWise, Horizon Educational Alliance, was founded in response to the 2008 recession to rethink education and career pathways as a recovery strategy.

Similarly, Swiss employers and government officials understand that apprenticeship is an important economic asset during a downturn and are acting on that during the COVID-19 crisis. Although the early hit to apprenticeships compared with the overall economy is small, the Swiss government is investing additional funding into VET to ensure it has continued support through the recession.

Applying these lessons to US recovery efforts

The Swiss model teaches us that apprenticeship is a long-term workforce and economic development strategy that can help well over half of young people learn a profession as they transition from school to work. The model’s benefits to employers are large as well; highly trained apprentice graduates keep Swiss employers enormously productive.

In the US, expanding the scope of offerings, better integrating work-based and classroom learning, and investing in apprenticeship regardless of economic fluctuations can benefit all parties. Investments made in youth apprenticeship now could yield returns for decades to come.

Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

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