Postcard from Switzerland: Apprenticeships in a Changing World of Work

BY: Isabelle Dauner Gardiol, Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 09. February 2020

Readers probably know the American documentary reality television program – The Apprentice – that judges the business skills of a group of contestants. With its different international versions in many countries, the show brings together contestants with different professional backgrounds in an elimination-style competition to move from an apprentice to a professional person.

Apprenticeships, on the other hand, even though don’t pit against applicants the same way as the reality television show, are competitive and relevant paths, mainly for young women and men, to learn professional skills and gain qualifications. Simply, they offer opportunities for young people to be employed to do a real job while studying for a formal qualification during three or four years. Usually they spend one day of the week at school and the rest of their week learning and applying professional skills at the workplace.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that apprenticeships are probably the oldest public-private partnership in history. While they’re getting increased attention, our question is: how are apprenticeships faring with all the talk surrounding the changing nature of work?

In this blog post, we look closely at the experience of Switzerland in view of changes in the world of work driven by technological innovation, demographics and globalization. We believe the lessons are relevant, if tailored to different contexts, to other countries struggling to address the growing problem of youth unemployment.   

Evolving but relevant avenues to a broad array of skills

Our reading of Swiss history shows that apprenticeship programs are relatively as old as Switzerland. Used as learning a profession on the workplace as far back as the Middle Ages, apprenticeships got formalized at the end of the 19th century through the first cantonal laws.

Yet, Switzerland isn’t immune from the changing world of work – increased automation and digitalization, change in the forms of employment (flexi work place, flexi work time), shift in the demands for skills (substituting both routine manual and cognitive tasks, while increasing the need for new skills) and so on. So, we wondered how Swiss apprenticeship programs have evolved and are still relevant.

It’s fair to say that apprenticeship programs in Switzerland aren’t locked in the past but have kept pace with changes. In fact, Swiss apprenticeship programs have constantly adapted to reality thanks to a tri-partite public-private collaboration.

This is how it works: training companies develop curricula (organized in professional associations), hire apprentices and teach them the practical and specific skills needed in a profession. That isn’t all: cantonal administrations in charge of education manage the professional schools where apprentices learn general skills. Then comes the federal (central) administration that provides the legal framework, and coordinates and regulates the system.

Unlike some education systems in other countries that encourage students to ‘keep their grades up, get into a good college, get a good degree’, nearly 2/3 of young people in Switzerland choose to pursue a vocational program. In a way, apprenticeships have remained to be a common feature of work life. Here’s the secret: since learning happens almost fully immersed in training companies, by nature, the curricula of apprenticeships evolve with the changes in the world of work.

For us, the changing nature of work is like ‘preparing students for jobs and tasks that don’t yet exist’. To put what this means in perspective, we may declare that children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely different job types that don’t yet exist and doing tasks that we can’t even imagine today. From big companies like ABB, UBS, Zurich Insurance and Mercuria to small and medium enterprises, employers are positioning themselves to remain competitive while creating opportunities for the youth.

Of course, we need to be honest in our assessment: in some industries, for example the mechanical or high-tech industry, company leaders complain that the learning contents don’t evolve at a pace which follows the rhythm of technological innovation, like robots or artificial intelligence. Patrik Schellenbauer, Chief Economist and Director of Programs and Research of Avenir Suisse, argues that ‘skills learned during vocational training risk becoming too specific…. And specific skills can often depreciate quickly, especially faced with fundamental innovations.’   

Against the odds, stakeholders in charge of the apprenticeship programs in Switzerland are aware of regional and global changes and they collaborate well. This makes adaptation work better, for example, through improving administrative process of changing curricula and learning context in a more flexible and responsive way. The results are good: a ‘quicker win’ for the economy and the society, and increased job opportunities for young people.

From entry into the labor market to lifelong learning

We recognize that learning is a key aspect of apprenticeships. Traditionally, apprenticeships have been associated with a particular moment in one’s working life, mainly for young people leaving school unprepared for career employment. So, it is no wonder that the immediate objective of apprenticeship programs is to support the transition of citizens from compulsory school learning to actual labor market needs.

Apprentices are ‘thrown’ into the work life at the age of 15/16 and learn a profession at a very young age. But this isn’t the end of the journey. After finishing the apprenticeship, two thirds of the graduates directly start working in a company. The other third continues the learning journey towards a tertiary education in a higher professional school or a specialized high school. Others decide to pass professional exams while employed in a company, so that they can later open their own business and train apprentices.

This way, entering the labor market with an apprenticeship opens many possibilities to pursue further education, either directly or later, and indeed is a valid foundation for lifelong learning. By lifelong learning, we mean acquiring a more diverse set of skills over time. As the Economist fittingly puts it, ‘lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative.’ That’s why it becomes necessary that young people and adults alike need to be agile lifelong learners through reskilling and upskilling to meet the rapidly changing nature of work. With more middle-aged workers opting to train for a second career, increasingly, adults are also part of apprenticeship programs.

Low youth unemployment, yet at times difficult entry into the world of work

Realities on the ground are sometimes more nuanced, and not everything is rosy. Apprenticeships are also about contributing to the decent work agenda – it isn’t just about how many jobs and for whom, but also what kind of jobs.

Once an apprentice has found a place, things usually go well, but things can also go wrong. Some apprentices lack the support from the company to teach them the practical skills because nobody in the company has enough time for this task. Learning takes place in companies that produce for real and need to make profit.

Moreover, since apprentices are usually very young when they start, they may face difficulties to adapt to hard working conditions, having to get up very early, spending long working days, being left alone with their tasks. In extreme cases, this can lead to ending the apprenticeship contract by either party, which is particularly hard at that age. In Switzerland, 2 out of 10 apprentices break up their apprenticeship contract. Most find a new employer to finish their education, but some stay behind.

One cannot also forget the gender aspect: imagine a girl who dreams about becoming a professional mason. She will have a hard time finding a company which offers her an apprenticeship place, even in Switzerland. The reasons are obvious – it’s been a man’s world in Switzerland.

In other instances, there’re more demands for apprenticeships in a given profession than places provided by companies, and the candidates have to wait or chose another profession.

Indeed, apprenticeships contribute to integrate boys and girls into the labor market and ensure that they obtain a grade from secondary school even if they aren’t so good at school. But on the other hand, some youth struggle to find a place, and the lower their grades, the more difficulties they face in finding an apprenticeship place.

Definitely, vocational education contributes to low unemployment rates of youth, but they also come with a cost for those young boys and girls who aren’t yet mature for the world of work.

Additional sources


Cover picture:@ Swiss Post taken from

Isabelle holds a PhD in development economics and currently works in the research department of the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET). She has participated in the design of a trend monitoring process for the Swiss VET system and in different studies related to carrier development of apprenticeship holders and to the effects of digitalization on the apprenticeship system. Currently, she is coordinating the design and implementation of an exhibition on apprenticeship in Switzerland, which can be seen in professional fairs ( Previously, she worked for several years at HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation in the rural economy team, as senior advisor on financial inclusion and market systems development.
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies