‘Mr. Apprentice’ Can Look To Switzerland For A Model To Help Close U.S. Youth Skills Gap

Faith Whittlesey (Switzerland, 1981-1983 and 1985-1988)

Patrick Gleason (Director of State Affairs at Americans for Tax Reform)

Cross-posted from the January 26, 2017 issue of Forbes

Chief among the problems facing Donald Trump as he takes presidential office is the youth skills gap between what the U.S. education system currently produces and what employers actually need to compete nationally and globally in the 21st century.

Around 2008, German carmaker Porsche invested about $2.12 million in its Leipzig apprenticeship training center.

It’s no secret it has become all too easy to get a college degree today without having learned much of marketable value, which helps explain unacceptably high levels of both youth unemployment (above 10%) and youth underemployment (estimated at 40% for recent college graduates).

The President might look to Switzerland, with youth unemployment at 3% and its global gold standard apprentice system, as a possible model for the U.S. in closing the skills gap. The good news is that Trump already has. As we recently learned, Switzerland’s apprentice system was very much a subject of discussion of a Dec. 21 phone call between Trump, who praised the Swiss education system, and Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, who called to offer congratulations to the President-elect.

Nancy Hoffman—who co-leads the Pathways to Prosperity Network program involving Harvard Graduate School of Education and a number of states working to ensure more young people complete high school and attain a postsecondary credential—explains how the Swiss apprentice program works:

“Seventy percent of teenagers [16 and older] in Switzerland spend their week moving between a workplace, a sector organization [such as the machine tools industry], and school. … They do everything an entry-level employee would do, albeit under the wings of credentialed teachers within the company. They are paid a monthly starting wage of around $800, rising to around $1,000 by the time they are in their third year.”

While Germany also has a well-known apprentice program, Switzerland’s, in which 30% of Swiss companies participate, is superior for a number of reasons, one being its laser focus on the guidance from and needs of companies and firms; another being that it is possible within the system to be promoted, based on ability and performance, all the way up the ladder to top executive management positions.

Hoffman explains other advantages of the Swiss system:

“Switzerland, unlike many dual-system countries, provides no special incentives to companies to participate. Companies benefit financially from the work of apprentices, value the privilege of employing young people they already know, and see training the next generation as part of their mission. With an upper secondary completion rate above 90%…Switzerland’s success is attributed by Swiss researchers to…vocational education and training programs ‘[that] closely match the needs of the labor market, both in terms of professional qualifications and the number of available jobs.’ A vocational credential can land you in upper-level management or at ‘Switzerland’s MIT,’ the University of Applied Sciences. As the Swiss say, and as the… system confirms: There are no dead ends.”

In short, there are two roads to the top in Switzerland: one through the traditional university system, the other as a high-achieving apprentice.

An effort to adopt a Swiss-style apprentice system in the U.S. would present Trump with an opportunity for a policy victory that is both pro-worker and pro-business—and could be achieved with bipartisan cooperation. Former Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez touted the Swiss apprentice system as a model for the U.S. following a 2015 trip to Switzerland hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Suzan LeVine (a former Microsoft executive), herself a big advocate of the Swiss system. After his visit, Perez lamented that the U.S. “has drastically under-invested in apprenticeship.”

“While some of our global neighbors have made apprenticeship programs an integral part of their economies,” added Perez, the United States has “failed to capitalize on the value they can create.”

The stock market has rallied since Trump’s victory, with rising share prices reflecting optimism about a new administration whose fiscal and regulatory policies will increase the job-creating capacity of businesses and investors. Along with promoting and expanding school choice, which Trump made clear during the campaign is his intention, the development of a robust apprentice system modeled on the Swiss approach is a great way for the Trump administration to ensure that young workers have the skills needed to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy. It is also entirely appropriate for a president who became a pop culture reality TV star in his hit show The Apprentice.

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