As Europe’s economy recovers, companies and investors across the continent are gearing up for new opportunities by taking advantage of its hidden strengths: education, skills and innovative people. Here we look at how the Swiss vocational training system helps it to top global competitiveness tables.
A cavernous brick workshop behind the main train station in Zurich is one place where, at 8am on a dark winter’s morning, it is possible to find teenagers beaming with enthusiasm and professional pride.
At work benches under fluorescent lights, 13 apprentices are in their second year of training to become Swiss federal railway automation engineers. “In Switzerland, if you do an apprenticeship, you can also get a very good job,” says Robin Witschi, 17. “In lots of countries, you have to go to university.”
Switzerland’s long-established apprenticeship system, combining classroom and workplace learning, is widely seen as one of the affluent country’s greatest economic strengths, creating a pool of highly skilled workers for Swiss companies.
The efficiency gains help explain why Switzerland — despite its high costs resulting from a strong franc — regularly tops global economic competitiveness tables; the World Economic Forum this year described its labour market as “the best functioning globally”. Hopes are high that European innovation such as this could create an opportunity for growth as the continent recovers from the financial crisis.
The apprenticeship system is deeply entrenched in Swiss culture, making it difficult for rival economies to copy.
“This is how Switzerland works. It functions because on every level, people try to do a good job — reliably, precisely,” says Rudolf Strahm, a former Social Democratic politician who advises foreign governments on the Swiss system.
Dating from medieval times, formal apprenticeship schemes remain entrenched across German-speaking Europe. Not coincidentally, Germany and Austria, as well as Switzerland, have among the continent’s lowest youth unemployment rates.
In Switzerland, two-thirds of students in the final stage of secondary education opt for vocational training, mostly in three or four year “dual” programmes combining classroom study with workplace training.
Prominent alumni include Sergio Ermotti, chief executive of UBS, who began his career in the mid-1970s as an apprentice at Corner Bank in Lugano, and Peter Voser, chairman of ABB engineering group, who started in the early 1980s on a vocational training course at a bank in Aargau.
At the Zurich training centre, operated by Login, a subsidiary of the SBB railway operator, apprentices believe their career prospects are just as attractive as those of counterparts who continued with their academic education — and they are paid a wage, starting at SFr680 ($680) a month in their first year.
“With the apprenticeships, you have foundation training then you can go in a different direction,” says Leon Rohweder, one of the apprentices. “That’s a great advantage,” agrees his colleague Michèle Bodenmann, who says she might consider switching later to a career in the military or as a paramedic. “The big difference to other countries is that it doesn’t matter whether you went to Gymnasium [grammar school] or did an apprenticeship — you are on the same [social] level,” she adds.
Swiss companies are closely involved in drawing up and selecting candidates for training programmes for more than 200 professions, ranging from cooking and social care to multiple branches of engineering.
Crucially, some 45 per cent of funding for Swiss vocational training comes from the private sector — compared with an average of just 14 per cent among members of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
That high private sector spending “helps ensure apprenticeship programmes are in line with labour market demands”, says Marie-Helene Doumet, OECD education analyst.
Proponents believe the system boosts innovation by creating a skilled workforce that can efficiently translate the latest developments in academic thinking into practical applications. “It is a means of distributing the latest technologies,” says Mr Strahm.
That malleability encourages entrepreneurship and allows Switzerland to keep pace with rapid technological change, they say. With a population of less than 9m, the size of its economy means companies have to compete almost entirely on the global stage.
“We could never follow Google, or Apple or Facebook. Switzerland does not have a large domestic market,” Mr Strahm says. “Our strength is in specialist, niche products we can sell worldwide.”
Nevertheless, some Swiss educationalists fear that the training is too specialist and focused on vocational qualifications in an era when digitalisation is upending traditional ways of working and creating uncertainty about future job requirements.
“In a period of technological uncertainty, what we learn today is not necessarily what we will need tomorrow. So general knowledge is an advantage,” warns Patrik Schellenbauer, chief economist at Avenir Suisse, an open market think-tank in Zurich.
But the Swiss system has inbuilt flexibility. Even if adolescents start in vocational training, they can switch to academic courses later and even study at the country’s top universities. “You could work on the till in a shop — or rise to become a professor,” says Tim Hodel, another SBB apprentice.
Importantly, vocational educational and training programmes have strong support in Switzerland, and parents are pleased when their children win places. This means they attract the brightest students as well as investment by companies.
But take-up is lower in French-speaking parts of western Switzerland, where students are more likely to choose a more general education, reflecting the higher regard in the local community for purer academic thinking. “In the end, apprenticeship schemes are extremely dependent on culture — and you see that in Switzerland,” says Mr Schellenbauer. “It is difficult to export that kind of culture.”