While here in Switzerland, one of the things that I have found most fascinating and what seems to be the foundation for Switzerland’s reputation of a highly efficient society, lies in their apprenticeship program. From a young age, adolescents begin preparing and training for their careers. And like any system that has been in place for several hundred years, it is a well oiled machine.
In the canton of Fribourg, most children by the age of 12 have an idea of the educational path they wish to continue on. Only about 20% of Swiss adolescents end up going to high school. The rest will enter vocational or technical training which range from more traditional vocational fields such as bakers, plumbers and mechanics to graphic designers, bank tellers, retail sales and finance. Up until age 12, children attend the equivalent to the US’ elementary school. At the end of elementary school there is an exam and a meeting with the teachers and parents of the child to discuss what path the child might be interested in. There are three possible options for the child to continue on in what is our equivalent to jr. high. There is the most basic track, a general track and advanced track. If the child has had difficulty up until this point, it will most likely be determined that the child will continue on the basic track, where he or she will learn basic subjects with an emphasis on vocational training and the opportunity to shadow several different workplaces to find the career they think they would most enjoy. These students will then start their apprenticeship at age 16. Children who have excelled in school are placed in the advanced courses. These children will most likely continue on to University for fields like research, medicine, law and engineering or Haute Ecole for fields like physical therapy, education, business and social work. For children who are not entirely sure which route they would like to go and have maybe at times had difficulty with certain subjects, they are placed on what is called the general path. These children have the opportunity to work their way into the advanced courses and continue on to University or Haute Ecole. It is also possible for children on any of these tracks to choose an apprenticeship at age 16. One problem with this is that children who should normally continue on to Haute Ecole or University might be taking a desired apprenticeship spot from a child who only has the apprenticeship opportunity.
While this might sound like it is a system where young people are blocked in, it actually isn’t. If you complete an apprenticeship and would like to further your education, after your apprenticeship is complete, you can take a year of specialized studying for what is called the « maturité ». This year helps you prepare for higher education and then if you pass the exam, you can continue your studies. You also have the option to change apprenticeships if you so desire.
A major benefit from this system is that the apprenticeships are free- as a matter of fact, the apprentices earn money while they are working. The companies that take them on, benefit as well because it is essentially free labor for them. This is a major difference from our current system in the US. For many young people in the US who are just finishing high school, even the vocational and technical programs at community colleges might seem daunting when considering the costs and school schedule required. While many students qualify for financial aid, some may not even have the skills to navigate through the FAFSA application process and may be too embarrassed to ask for help. Once the student has been awarded financial aid, often times it isn’t enough to meet housing and transportation needs. American culture puts an expectation on young people to move out of their parent’s home at around 18 or 19, forcing them to work full-time just to support themselves. With demanding work schedules, prospective students are more likely to worry about the financial constraints associated with pursuing a technical field, much less university. But of course loans are always an option…
So here, young people start their training while still living at home. They earn a small salary for some pocket-money and by the time they finish their training, which lasts from 3 to 4 years, they are highly skilled workers and debt free. Students attending University are also typically debt free with the cost of about $500 a semester. The Swiss see this as an investment in their future workers and society. It’s like they believe that skilled and educated workers will only contribute to the betterment of their communites…
What I have most noticed about the benefits of these apprenticeship programs within my own field of dentistry, is that these apprentices are not just learning the skills in their field, they are learning responsibility, work ethic, professionalism, and communication skills. When I see these kids that are dental assistants and lab techs, I am so impressed with their professionalism. They are learning every aspect of the dental office from reception, chairside assistance, ordering, filling schedules, oral hygiene education, to maintaining the office and dental equipment- these kids learn it all. They are also still in school taking classes related to their field- so they are balancing a work and school schedule with classes like anatomy and physiology, biology and even physics !
While this might seem like a gross generalization and it could just simply have to do with demographics, I’ve noticed that I have way more young working class patients than I did in the US- keeping in mind that Switzerland is not a socialist country, therefore does not have socialized medicine (that’s another blog post!) and hardly anyone has dental insurance. While salaries are higher here than in the US, dental costs are relatively similar. The average cleaning is around 130 chf so around $110 which is still pretty expensive for a young person here. And these young people pay it,! I think this a testament to the responsibility they learn at a young age.
Unfortunately the difficulty in applying this system in the US would be organizing local industries and education systems to work together. It is something that would have to start from the ground up and would take several years to implement. As with many industries, from dental hygiene to electricians, each state has their specific laws, regulations and certifications regarding each field. If it were something that started at the state level not national, it seems like it might be possible. I guess it would kind of be like dual enrollment but for kids who maybe don’t intend on going to University, they could enroll in programs like drafting and design, marketing, office administration, hvac (air condition, refrigeration and heating),etc which high school students can already do in many parts of the country but for positions like marketing and office administration, companies would have to be willing to eliminate the requirement of a 4 year degree to many entry-level positions. And quite frankly there aren’t many options at least not where I am from in Florida and there are gpa requirements which in my opinion entirely defeats the purpose- these programs should be available for kids who might not be academically driven. There should also be more options that include fields like cosmetology, dental assisting, nursing assistant, etc. And for fields like plumbing or electrician, currently you have to be 18 years old and sometimes require a high school diploma or GED. Maybe I should just run for president and put this system into place- it’s not like you need any experience for that job.