- The US government has been working with the Swiss government since 2015 on developing apprenticeship programs.
- The US is facing a "skills gap," where jobs that don’t require a college education but more than a high school education are going unfilled. These types of jobs will grow increasingly necessary over the next two decades.
- Local and state governments are experimenting with Swiss-style apprenticeships, and they have wide-ranging bipartisan support.
- This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.
Americans take the concept of high school for granted, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the importance of high school as a path to a job took root, and the majority of Americans began attending.
States experimented with programs that served students best, and vocational training accompanied academic learning. In 1920, University of Chicago professor Paul H. Douglas wrote a study on "American Apprenticeship and Industrial Education," and concluded that America’s apprenticeship model needed to be updated to accommodate changes in technology and society. A century later, many experts are reaching the same conclusion. This time, we’re looking to Switzerland for help.
When Douglas was writing, vocational and academic training were already splitting, with educators increasingly associating the former with lower achieving students. The thinking was, if you couldn’t perform in the classroom, then you could learn a trade, and it would have much lower standards.
This resulted in a stigma that was only intensified after World War II, when the combination of the GI Bill and rapid industrial progressions started transforming four years in college from a privilege for the elite into what it is today: essentially a requirement to get a shot at a decent-paying career.
Now, America is in the early stages of yet another significant technological shift, and potentially millions of jobs will disappear to automation. But that’s not as bleak as it sounds. The real problem is that, even today, there is a "skills gap." Unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds last July (9.2%) was more than double average unemployment (3.95%), There are plenty of good jobs that do not require a college education, but they need more than a high school education.
That’s where European countries like Switzerland and Germany, which have perfected this middle ground through their apprenticeship programs, come in.
In Switzerland, 4-year college isn’t the only acceptable path
"In Switzerland, vocational and professional education and training and higher education together form an innovative system capable of keeping up with developments in society and the economy," former Swiss president and federal councillor Johann N. Schneider-Ammann wrote in a 2017 report on US-Swiss collaboration.
In a recent report from the management consulting firm Bain, titled "Making the Leap," Bain partners Chris Bierly and Abigail Smith deem the Swiss model "the gold standard," and explain how they and their colleagues helped the governments of Denver and Washington state develop similar programs, to promising results.
In Switzerland, the average student will have an idea of which field they are interested in pursuing, and at 15 or 16 they will begin a three-year apprenticeship (70% of students enroll). At 19 or 20, they will have a federally recognized apprenticeship diploma as proof of the skills they learned. Enrollment has students learning in the classroom and on the job, and most students will have the option of turning the apprenticeship into a full-time job upon completion. Students who go through the apprenticeship program are paid for their work, and it gives them real-world experience that establishes a foundation either for their career or the pursuit of college degrees.
It corrects the problem that American experts like Douglas recognized a century ago but that the educational system let get ahead of itself: Apprenticeships, and vocational training in general, should be held to high standards because it improves the workforce and the national economy.
Apprenticeships are gaining bipartisan support in the US
At Business Insider’s World Economic Forum conference panel in Davos, Switzerland in January, Wharton professor Adam Grant said it’s the idea that college should be a requirement for a decent life has run its course. He clarified that as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he takes a rigorous academic education seriously, but said it’s vital to recognize that for some graduates, accruing a mound of debt is not worth it. After all, he said, a college degree is "a certification that you went to school; it’s not a certification that you have the capabilities that an employer needs."
Aside from state, local, and corporate experiments with apprenticeships, the US federal government has been working with the Swiss government with 2015 on apprenticeship models. And unlike virtually anything else, the collaboration carried over smoothly from the Obama to Trump administration, and has received bipartisan support from Republicans like Texas governor Greg Abbott and Democrats like Washington governor Jay Inslee.
When American state politicians developed their high school systems in the early 20th century, they studied what European countries did. Ohio’s government even recruited the German inventor of the part-time "continuation school" alternative to high school to develop a similar program for its state. Necessity has brought back old lessons in a new context, and the US is once again looking to Europe for ideas, with the aim of bringing respect and rigor back to college alternatives.
"I’m convinced that Switzerland has a lot to offer to advanced economies such as the United States when it comes to vocational education and training," Schneider-Ammann wrote in the apprenticeship report. "We can contribute solutions by presenting our educational system and by promoting awareness of the inherent strengths of our dual system. Also, we can learn from our exchanges with our American partners. I look forward to seeing the United States and Switzerland continuing to intensify their cooperation in this area — we already have very close economic ties."
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