SA studying Swiss training model as it seeks remedies to youth unemployment blight

23rd January 2015 By: Leandi Kolver - Creamer Media Deputy Editor

Balance is the key to a working education system, as both practically or vocationally trained workers and those with academic qualifications are needed to fulfil a country’s needs, Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, international cooperation in education project manager Jérôme Hügli told a South Africa delegation of government, business and training institution representatives during a recent visit to Switzerland.

Such a balance, he said, would contribute to a lowering of youth unemployment, as young people learnt the skills that were relevant to the economy at that stage.

As of 2013, Switzerland had an unemployment rate of 3.2%, with its youth unemployment rate – persons aged 15 to 24 – being only slightly higher at 3.4%. By contrast, Statistics South Africa’s third-quarter Quarterly Labour Force Survey showed that South Africa’s unemployment rate was 25.5%, with 67.5% of the total unemployed being between 15 and 34 years of age.

Hügli explained that vocational training in Switzerland was conducted through a dual system where apprentices were indentured to companies after completing their compulsory schooling, which was usually at the age of 16, where they underwent practical training on an alternating basis along with attending theoretical classes at a vocational college.

He stated that two-thirds of all Swiss youth chose a vocational education upon leaving school owing to this educational route’s career prospects.

As the training offered was driven by the economy, with private companies playing an integral role in deciding which skills were needed, people completing their vocational education and training (VET) qualification did not have a problem finding work.

However, students who did not choose to follow the vocational route could follow a more academic-focused further education programme, similar to South Africa’s university system, once their compulsory school education was completed.

Hügli also stressed that the Swiss education system was permeable, which meant that students could, according to their needs and ambitions, easily study at university after completing a VET course and vice versa.

Therefore, it was believed that in Switzerland youth could relatively easily adapt and acquire the skills that would serve them best according to the country’s needs and economy at any given time.

Meanwhile, Swiss Coordination Centre for Research and Education director Professor Stefan Wolter said that companies should engage in the training of young people through offering apprenticeships for economic reasons and not only because they felt obliged to serve their country.

He, however, explained that it would not make economic sense for all companies to take in apprentices and, therefore, these companies should not be expected to do so.

According to Wolter companies benefit from offering apprenticeships in two main ways, namely through using apprentices to substitute unskilled workers in the company, which leads to short-term benefits, as well as by ensuring that the future skills needed by the company would be available through training enough people.

Wolter explained that the latter approach was a “development strategy with a bet on the future”.

In addition, companies could also save on hiring costs if apprentices are offered permanent positions upon having completed their apprenticeships – which in Switzerland lasted between three and four years.

Further, keeping apprentices as permanent employees also allows a company to cut out the four to five months adjustment period usually required by a new employee to get used to a company and its internal systems.

Wolter noted that for each apprentice taken on an average Swiss company had to invest about €25 000 a year; however, research has shown that the companies received a rate of return of about 7% to 10% on this investment.

But not all companies would derive these benefits as some are simply too small to generate enough work to justify an apprentice, while others do not have enough skilled work for the apprentice or only required highly-skilled people.

Therefore, these companies will incur a loss should they undertake an apprenticeship programme. If government is to subsidise these companies to take on apprentices, the funds provided would have to be significant and would not make economic sense for the country.

Thus, in Switzerland, companies are not obliged to offer apprenticeships, however, about 40% of businesses still decide to do so.