Swisscom youth apprentices and training staff at the CEMETS institute this past summer.
The time is ripe for us to learn from the Swiss apprenticeship system as apprenticeships continue to gain momentum in the United States. In an earlier blog, I provided an overview of the Swiss Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPET) system. Now I take a closer look at two companies’ apprenticeship programs. As part of the Swiss Center on the Economics and Management of Education and Training Systems institute I participated in this summer, we visited Swisscom and Migros and spoke with talent development professionals and young apprentices. The following blog briefly describes both companies’ programs and shares highlights from our visits.
Meet Swisscom and Migros: Two Exemplary Apprenticeship Models
Swisscom is the main Internet and mobile phone provider for Switzerland, and Migros is the largest supermarket chain with multiple other businesses (fitness centers, adult education, banks, etc.). A public-private partnership with a total of 21,000 employees, Swisscom employs 940 apprentices ages 15 to 19. Migros is the largest company in Switzerland (40th in the world); it is a two million-member cooperative with over 102,000 employees, which includes 3,775 young apprentices.
Both companies actively recruit apprentices starting when youth are only 14 years old. In the last year of secondary school (equivalent to the ninth grade and the end of compulsory school), the 71 percent of students who want to go to upper secondary school in the VPET system must find an apprenticeship position and sign a multiyear contract. Swisscom’s recruiting language appeals to youth: “Your talent and ideas are sought: During a Swisscom apprenticeship, you won’t be washing glasses or doing other mundane tasks—you will be given plenty of responsibility from day one. You decide on the content of your apprenticeship and will be involved in hands-on projects throughout Switzerland.” Swisscom has three young apprentices answering phone questions from 15 year olds weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Migros describes its apprenticeships in the following way: “Migros offers young professionals an enormous variety, with more than 40 different professions in 34 retail, industrial, logistics, and service companies. The company has posted a success rate of more than 97 percent in its qualification procedures for many years. The average rate of subsequent employment in the Migros Group stands at 64 percent.” Photos and informational videos of young professionals populate both companies’ recruiting websites.
Swisscom and Migros focus on different sectors within the commercial apprenticeship, an umbrella occupation chosen by about 30 percent of adolescents. The commercial apprenticeship includes banking, communications, retail, information technology, and more. At Swisscom, most students will pursue financial services and tend to be higher academic achievers than those at Migros where many will work in stores or in Migros’ offices.
What are the Benefits of Youth Apprenticeships?
U.S. readers are likely already asking two questions: why would companies want to hire 10 to 15 percent of their employees at age 15? And why would parents want to jointly sign a contract with their daughter or son that commits her or him to enrollment in school, a position at work two to four days a week, and extra occupational training for two to four years?
The answers to these two questions are linked: Swiss employers believe that the best way to build a pipeline of loyal, well-trained employees is to begin with adolescents who are on the cusp of adulthood and eager to experience what life ahead might bring. And all players—families, employers, educators—believe that, beyond learning an occupation, an apprenticeship socializes young people to the world of work, provides them with a network of adults beyond the family from whom they can learn, and helps them explore their interests and talents at an early age.
Swisscom Embraces a Student-Centered Approach
Swisscom’s approach is considered revolutionary in apprenticeship learning design—or, for that matter, in approaches to learning in general. The company applies a student-centered approach in which youth receive guidance, advocacy, and support from coaches who work with a caseload of 35 students throughout the program’s duration. Students work with their coach to create a learning plan based on the competencies they would like to learn. Through an electronic marketplace, apprentices choose projects—which vary from three months to a year—relevant to their learning goals. Any Swisscom employee who seeks to supplement a team with young talent can post a project.
Apprentices are taught to approach problems with “why, how, what” questions, and must document their own learning as well as decide when they are ready for assessment. The system emphasizes such qualities as flexibility, reliability, problem solving, and curiosity. One apprentice we interviewed during our visit claimed that the experience transformed her “from kid to adult” overnight. “You come from school, and suddenly you’re on your own. I didn’t want my parents help. I wanted to be grown up. When you’re proud of what you do, you do your best.”
“They treated me like a man, so I had to go from kid to man in one day”
Compared to Swisscom, Migros has a more traditionally structured approach to educating “young talents,” as the company calls its apprentices. It offers many perks to its young employees: sports teams, a network of fitness centers, and very popular lifelong learning ventures called Club Schools. The company also offers social services to apprentices needing support for family-related issues and other challenges. Migros’ “Time to Learn” portal houses students’ electronic portfolios.
We interviewed a young man who was completing his electronics retail internship, and he proudly shared that he had to present a PowerPoint about himself as part of his interview at age 15. He is now earning $1,400 a month in his third year, which he anticipates will grow to about $4,000 a month once he becomes a regular employee. When asked what was hardest about becoming an apprentice, he said, “I wasn’t used to work, but they treated me like a man, so I had to go from kid to man in one day.”
Achieving Impressive Results
The results of these rapid youth-to-young-adult transformations are impressive. Almost every young person has a viable place in the economy by the time they reach their twenties. Swiss companies support young people who move from one company to another, spreading fresh ideas within sectors of the economy. They also applaud career changers—youth who decide on university after an apprenticeship, or who do a second stint in a different field. As one Swiss employer said to me several years ago, “It is hard for 15 year olds to grow up, but in the Swiss system, young people work with adults that they respect and it helps them become good Swiss citizens and efficient, productive employees.”
In the final blog in my Swiss apprenticeship series, I will explore the vital role of sector-based associations and reflect on lessons we might apply at home.