Voices in Education

Ordinary Teenagers, Extraordinary Results: Apprentices at Work
In a small office lined with desks and computer stations, a dozen teenagers pored over paperwork and deliberated decisions, one young man zipping from table to table in a wheelchair. The young people, 15 to 18 years old, were reading, discussing, and evaluating job applications. On other days, they attended secondary school. But for more than half of each week, they worked – as apprentices here at Swisscom, Switzerland’s largest telecommunications company. Their current role was in human resources, determining who would be invited to sit for the five-hour exam that begins the process of selecting next year’s Swisscom apprentices.

I was visiting Swisscom to learn more about its remarkable apprenticeship program. The first thing these student workers told me, proudly, is that earning a spot there is highly competitive. (About 1 in 12 applicants are accepted.) Swisscom is the leading telecom provider in the country. In 2010, the company trained 813 apprentices, averaging about five percent to six percent of 19,500 employees. Swisscom’s apprentices are chosen from among 7,000 applicants each year. The application review process I witnessed was an initial step in sorting out who would join the company.

Switzerland’s Return on its Training Investment
Switzerland’s apprenticeship system makes for a compelling case study for many reasons, besides the country’s low youth unemployment and high employer engagement. Even knowing as I did that the Swiss embraced workplace learning, nothing prepared me for how startling it would be to see so many teenagers actually engaged in learning and work in the commercial and IT sectors of modern, profitable, mainstream companies.

"Isn't it hard for a 15-year-old to start a profession so early?" I asked Alessandro, a charming 18-year-old who had finished his apprenticeship and now was working in human resources at Swisscom 60 percent of his time. "When you are 15," he said to me in the English he described as “middling” quality, "you want to be an adult, so when you start the job, you feel like an adult. You have income, you are respected, you are more free."

I had been told that Swisscom’s approach to educating its 813 apprentices is not unusual. But to US educator eyes it was extraordinary—the kind of imaginative strategy one might find in the US in a small, alternative education program, and even there it would be considered cutting edge. My introduction to Swisscom began with its brochure, designed to grab the attention of the 14- and 15-year-olds the company targets. On the cover: a picture of a skateboarding boy, hair flying, bent low, sneakers with laces of two different colors, with the headline: “Fashion your own future.”

At the core of the Swisscom approach is what could be called a Vygotzsky-influenced philosophy. Program designers position young people to stretch beyond their skill levels, but with the scaffolding provided by a coach. The main vehicles for learning are projects lasting from two months to a year. Anyone in the company who has work to be done can post a project on the “qualiportal,” an electronic marketplace organized by job category. Positioned throughout the company are specially trained competency experts who help the apprentices fashion their projects into a set of outcomes related to one of the five fields for which Swisscom trains. The young person, in consultation with the coach, applies to work on a project, undergoes an interview with the team, and usually gets “hired.” As the director of human resources, who is responsible for the program told us, “We don’t care if the student knows how to do the job or how long they’ve been an apprentice, just as long as they are flexible, open, and willing to learn.”

This post is excerpted from Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life by Nancy Hoffman (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

About the Author: Nancy Hoffman is a vice president and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit located in Boston and author of Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life (Harvard Education Press, 2011).