There’s far more to Switzerland than fine chocolate and specialty watches. In fact, the thriving European country is the site of an innovative apprenticeship model that is successfully meeting the needs of both the country’s students and its employers – and Colorado’s leaders are taking note.

I recently had the opportunity to witness the Swiss system first-hand alongside a delegation of Colorado’s government, education, and business leaders. During the course of the multi-day visit, I discovered that the Swiss Vocational Education and Training (VET) system aligns perfectly with Colorado Succeeds two-pronged vision of success:

  1. All of Colorado’s children are educated to their greatest potential, and
  2. All of Colorado’s businesses have the talented and innovative homegrown workforce they need to grow and thrive.

Here at Colorado Succeeds, our members have often discussed the importance of envisioning the end goal and mapping back to the specific steps required to achieve that goal. That is exactly what Switzerland has accomplished with its system. It offers students more than 250 different apprenticeship programs to help them develop the most-in-demand skills needed in the country’s growing industries like technology, healthcare, banking, and engineering.

With so many options in the so-called white-collar occupations – not the traditional realm of standard apprenticeship programs – the Swiss system enjoys a high degree of popularity and prestige. Close to 70 percent of all 15-year-olds in Switzerland opt into the program, spending three to four days a week at their chosen apprenticeship, with the other one to two days spent in the classroom.

The success of the Swiss system, widely considered the global gold standard for career-focused education programs, is possible in part because of its constant focus on delivering benefits to both students and employers.

It’s a common refrain that educators and parents alike hear from students today, “When will I ever use this information in the real world?” Under the Swiss model, there’s a ready answer to that question. The Swiss apprenticeship system creates relevance and engages students in their learning through a dual-track model of both work-based and classroom-based instruction.

By providing opportunities for work-based learning, the Swiss system gives students an opportunity to apply the theory they are learning in the classroom to actual business problems. This model strengthens the connection for students and provides increased relevance to help them stay focused on achieving their goals.

As my fellow delegate, Rich Lewis, CEO of RTL Networks, shared with me, “I have worked and spoken with hundreds of kids over the years and for so many of them, the issue is motivation. This model addresses the issue of motivation in a very direct way by creating increased relevance.”

As an example, Credit Suisse – the second-largest bank in Switzerland – explains that the heart of their banking apprenticeship is driven by the following four principles of connected learning:

  1. Self-directed learning: Independent procurement of learning opportunities
  2. Integrated learning: Utilizing digital and blended approaches to deliver content
  3. Cooperative learning: Learning from and with their peers as well as their managers
  4. Problem-based learning: Grappling with practical and situational problems, developing concrete solutions, and critically reflecting on the problem-solving experience

The VET system also provides two less tangible, but arguably as important benefits for students – hope and personalization. According to research from Gallup, hope is a stronger predictor of post-secondary success than a student’s SAT scores and GPA. Gallup includes three factors in its measurement of hope: A student’s goals, their level of self-efficacy, and their perception of viable pathways to achieving their goals.

Individuals without hope are often the ones who do not see reliable pathways to achieve their goals. The Swiss model gives students a wide variety of quality pathways, resulting in strong feelings of hopefulness and high levels of engagement – another strong predictor of success. Not only does Switzerland provide a multitude of pathways, but they also enable students to personalize their paths, based on their interests, passions, and future goals, rather than on test scores and grades, as is popular in other European countries.

As a representative of Swisscom, a major telecommunications company based in Switzerland and one of the business participants in the VET system, remarked during the delegation’s visit, “The apprentices are in the driver’s seat of what they learn and how they want to learn it.” In fact, Swisscom has created a competitive project marketplace within their business, where apprentices compete to earn a spot on various teams by showing how their skills and competencies match the needs of the project.

Under a system like the one in Switzerland, employers reap the rewards as well. Thanks to the development of deeper talent pipelines, skills gaps in specific industries such as technology and engineering are narrowing, as are the gaps in the highly sought-after twenty-first-century skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration.

Since the system places a high value on personalization, students are urged to take ownership over their learning, and as a result, life-long learners and self-starters are created. At Swisscom, their apprentices are expected to learn not only specific task-based skills, but also how to take initiative, be independent, be self-directed, and plan their time and tasks effectively. The entrepreneurial and problem-solving skills learned while on the job at Swisscom are transferable to many other jobs, no matter the industry.

Similarly, at LIBS, a high-tech engineering apprentice school, the program focuses on developing its students to become life entrepreneurs. The school works to create a sense of responsibility among its students to own their futures and ensure their own competitiveness. They encourage students to achieve this by customizing their personal and professional development on an ongoing basis throughout their lives.

Switzerland’s VET system has contributed to several impressive outcomes for the country and its citizens, including a remarkably low youth unemployment rate of 2.4 percent (in the United States, the rate is nearly 12 percent). In addition, among graduates of the apprenticeship program, 30 percent go on to attain higher education and apprenticeship graduates earn an average of 30 percent more than individuals in equivalent professions without an apprenticeship.

With all of these positive economic outcomes, it makes sense for Colorado and the U.S. to explore what makes the VET system work and how the model might be replicated here. I’ve identified several key factors that help assure the success of the Swiss system:

1. Choice: Students have the opportunity to personalize their educational experiences from a large spectrum of pathways (more than 250 options), regardless of grades or test scores. This allows the learner to build a unique career trajectory that is focused on their interest and goals. While choices are based on student interests, apprentice programs are only offered in positions that are highly demanded by the local labor market. This improves the alignment of their education-to-workforce pipeline and creates a solid base for the student’s future career and academic development.

2. Flexibility: The system provides a high degree of upward mobility without dead ends, and students can move back and forth between vocational pathways and academic pathways as they desire. At the conclusion of their apprenticeship, learners can continue working in their field, switch to a different one, pursue advanced professional degrees through ongoing business training, or obtain traditional academic credentials (bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D.’s) at the university.

3. Business engagement: As producers of educated talent, rather than solely consumers of it, the business community takes an active role in defining the VET system’s standards (what students need to learn) and creating the measurement tools to determine if students gain the relevant, in-demand skills that the labor market demands. This creates a high degree of quality assurance and a signal of readiness that is verified and trusted by industry, unlike in the United States, where a diploma can be seen as a glorified certificate of good attendance.

4. Prestige: Many C-level executives in Switzerland themselves participated in the apprenticeship program, and understand the quality and rigor of the training. The result is that vocational degrees are valued and recognized as high-quality and rigorous. Many of the business leaders we met commented that they would never consider hiring someone to work in their companies who hadn’t completed an apprenticeship. Further, the Swiss society holds the apprenticeship program in high-esteem, as it is socially accepted as a valuable pathway. Ultimately, the real proof is that parents of all socio-economic backgrounds are encouraging their children to pursue apprenticeships.

5. Return on Investment: Despite the hefty price tag for employers (Swiss companies spend roughly $5 billion per year on the program), the productivity gains generated by the apprenticeships typically outweigh the training costs. Nationwide, the net productivity benefit is $0.5 billion annually. In addition, the companies we visited explained how the apprenticeship program helps them welcome Millennials into their business. According to a representative from SwissCom, “it’s the people that make us successful now and in the future and the apprenticeship model ensures our workforce pipeline is filled with young, passionate, talented people. If you want the next generation of products, you need to invest in the next generation of people.”

Manufacturing company Mikron, another business participant in the Swiss VET system with operations in Colorado, noted that although the apprenticeship program is a long-term investment, it is helping the firm nurture and develop the talented workforce it needs for the future. They suggested that “without apprentices, we may as well close the doors of our business.”

This critical need to develop a pipeline of talented and skilled workers has led many Colorado business leaders to express their desire to bring aspects of the Swiss model back home to Colorado.

“After studying and visiting the Swiss apprenticeship system, I realized that our current system of career and technical education and middle skills training will not sustain the needs of our business and the state of Colorado. We are in a crisis for finding and developing skilled talent,” stated Jon Kinning, COO of RK Mechanical. “RK will be revamping and investing heavily in our established apprenticeship training program to more closely align with the Swiss model.” Click here to learn more about Jon’s takeaways and RK’s apprenticeship program.

In addition to RK Mechanical, other Colorado Succeeds members added their voices to the call for establishing a Colorado version of the Swiss system.

“Having experienced the Swiss model firsthand, I’m convinced that creating a system of apprenticeship programs across multiple industries is a great strategy for Colorado to pursue,” said Phil Kalin, CEO of Pinnacol Assurance. “Not only will it help address issues of building a pipeline of workers, but, more fundamentally, it can help create a pathway to solid middle class jobs. Pinnacol Assurance is committed to joining this important work and I encourage the rest of Colorado’s business community to participate as well.”

Another enthusiastic business leader, Donna Lynne, group president of Kaiser Permanente Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, added that Swiss system has “de-stigmatized young people who choose a post-secondary career versus going to college.”

Lynne also noted that the program could help deflate dropout rates, a huge problem in many districts today. “Since young people get to build job skills and get paid while going to school part-time, they are more likely to stay in school,” she said.

Ultimately, a system like the Swiss one can only be successful if there is a strong partnership among businesses, the state, and educators. Colorado Succeeds is committed to working with our members and leaders throughout the state to explore the viability of a similar model in Colorado. We see an incredible opportunity to help students achieve their dreams and at the same time develop a more skilled workforce for employers today and tomorrow, and we are all in.

photo of
Scott Laband