Workforce of Tomorrow Conference - The Shift to Reskilling and Lifelong Learning


Ambassador Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America 

On the Occasion of the U.S. News STEM Solutions: Workforce of Tomorrow Conference at the National Press Club, Washington D.C.

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It is an honor to be here. Thank you for hosting this interesting panel.

You have been discussing skills gaps, lifelong learning, and education innovation. These topics are also a concern in Switzerland, where we continuously try keep our educational system up-to-date to new trends and developments in the labor market. 

Switzerland is a small country with hardly any natural resources, so our economy depends on the education and skills of our people. We have a knowledge-based economy that relies on our innovation capabilities.

We believe that innovation is made possible not only through investments in research and development, but it is also driven through investments in education. A skilled and diverse workforce brings new ideas and perspectives to a work environment and we believe that our educational system plays a crucial role in our country’s innovation capabilities.

Our educational system is very dynamic. It offers numerous high-quality pathways and opportunities where everyone can follow their interests to further advance their strengths and competencies. Many of our research universities rank among the top 200 universities in the world.

However, our universities are not the only institutions that offer high-quality education in Switzerland: a very important part of our system is our strong vocational and professional education and training system. It is the most popular way for young people to start their careers and it contributes to a skills mix that is very valuable for our labor market. 

Two-thirds of all young people in Switzerland coming out of compulsory education decide to start their careers with an apprenticeship. We have over 230 types of apprenticeships, so there are a multitude of possibilities available for people to pursue their interests. They include traditional trades, but there are also apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing, health care, IT, financial services, and in many other fields.

In Switzerland, apprenticeships last between three to four years and combine classes at a vocational school with on-the-job training at a host company, where apprentices are employed and earn a salary. Apprentices not only learn a profession, they also learn a great variety of social skills because they are fully integrated into their host company’s normal work processes. Once they have graduated, they earn a federal diploma, which is recognized by employers all across Switzerland.

Apprenticeship diploma holders are highly sought after in the Swiss labor market. Because these young students have already spent time at companies, their experience is extremely applicable in future workplaces. They utilize the knowledge they learned in school immediately. This ensures that their skills meet the needs of the labor market. Therefore, apprenticeships are a fundamental component of the Swiss educational system. They also contribute to a low unemployment rate.

The system is managed as a public-private partnership. The main driving force that ensures its success, however, is the private sector: companies that require highly skilled workers and specialists. The private sector plays a crucial role in shaping our educational system. Companies and professional organizations express their views when they see that there is need for educational changes. They recognize opportunities to adapt our system and they are always in an active dialogue with educators and with the government.

It is thanks to this push that we continuously modernize our vocational and professional education and training system to make sure that it remains relevant for the workplace. Curricula are regularly updated, usually about every five years, to ensure that apprentices always learn up-to-date and practical knowledge. The vocational and professional education and training system is very labor-market driven. It is the federal government, however, that ensures quality and recognition.

For the Swiss economy and for society, this system produces a functioning youth labor market with a low unemployment rate. The idea behind our dual educational system is also that it will create a society of lifelong learners who can choose to update or reorient their skills whenever they like, based on the needs of the labor market. This is possible thanks to the high degree of permeability within the system, which allows apprentices to continue their education or change their professional path: for example, someone can start out as an apprentice and later decide to go to university and get a Ph.D. at one of our top-ranked universities.

During my posting at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C, our apprenticeship system has gained recognition here and helped to foster a valuable exchange of information, experiences, and best practices. There are also multiple Swiss companies in the United States, which have implemented Swiss-inspired apprenticeship programs and now work together with high schools and community colleges to train students in skills needed to start successful careers.

Just recently, in December 2018, Switzerland and the U.S. signed a Memorandum of Understanding to further deepen this exchange.

At the Embassy of Switzerland in the U.S., we have hosted many meetings and delegations to share our expertise and connect stakeholders interested in apprenticeships. We have also valued from these exchanges to gain inputs for updating our own apprenticeship system.

I’m convinced that high quality apprenticeships are of great importance for our advanced economies and societies as the 21st century economy requires more and more advanced skills in order to succeed.

Strong apprenticeship programs create a win-win situation: they are good for society because they create opportunities and good paying jobs for employees and at the same time they contribute to a broad skills mix. They strengthen the economy by providing employers with the workforce they need to compete in the marketplace.