Federal Statistical Office reports record number of apprenticeship contract terminations – what is to be done?

by Marianne Wüthrich, long-time vocational school teacher

“Never before have so many young people broken off their apprenticeship” was a recent “Tages-Anzeiger” headline, and the article quoted alarmingly high figures: it was a question of 22.4 percent of apprentices who had started their training in 2017.1

“What is going wrong in vocational education and training?” the authors ask. And we should add: “and what is to be done?”. Naturally, there are no simple or even eye-catching answers to this question. Without a doubt, it is often a combination of several causes that leads to an apprenticeship drop-out. The article mentions wrong choice of profession or apprenticeship, health reasons, poor performance of the apprentice as well as “dereliction of duty, conflicts and private environment”, or rarely bankruptcy/closure of the apprenticeship company. These reasons for discontinuing an apprenticeship are nothing new, but the question arises as to why discontinuations are increasing today. And the follow-up question: How can we counteract this in a meaningful way, i. e., for the benefit of young people as well as society?

Direct human approach instead of new job profiles

Youngsters belonging to the so-called Generation Z (born after 1996) “increasingly want a meaningful job. They don’t just want to be a cheap labour force.” This statement by the vice-director of Pro Juventute in the “Tages-Anzeiger” is quite astonishing to the experienced vocational school teacher. Forty years ago, most of my students wanted a meaningful job, and I have hardly ever seen a company where the master teachers did not do their best to make their apprentices enjoy their jobs and take pride in the increasingly demanding tasks they accomplished on their own in the course of their apprenticeship. When they talked about it at school, you could feel that the seeds were sown. Of course, some went through some minor or major rough patches in the course of their three or four years – but this was not unknown to us in grammar school, either. And of course, also at that time there were unmotivated apprentices who did not perform as required. We will get to that later.
  As far as the young people of today are concerned, Tages-Anzeiger contributor Dominik Balmer is surely right: “It may indeed be that Generation Z sometimes lacks bite and ambition. But the economy has to cope with that. There is no other option: there are no other personnel.”2 Those responsible for training in the industry associations are aware of this, since some of them are desperately seeking suitable apprentices. Some associations are revising their job descriptions so that it is clearer for young people (and their parents) what they can expect in everyday working life. Reto Hehli from the Carrosserie Suisse association (42.9 percent of automobile painters drop out of their apprenticeship!), for example, reports that many beginners in the car workshop are “surprised when they have to remain standing for the majority of the day and, if need be, lift heavy doors or bonnets”. At the same time, the associations are trying to “modernise” the image of their professions. In order to appeal to the younger generation and at the same time do something for the environment, Carrosserie Suisse, for example, wants to create a new label called “Green Car Repair” under the motto “Repair instead of replace” (“Tages-Anzeiger” of 30 November 2022).
  Will these efforts have the desired effect? Often, the direct approach through visible presentation, practical experience and human relationships is more effective than an original slogan. All Swiss pupils in the 8th/9th school year who are considering a vocational apprenticeship complete one or more trial sessions in various professions. They spend a few working days or even a whole week in an apprenticeship company and prove their school knowledge in tests; in that way they experience the requirements at first hand. The apprentice trainers and the apprentices the applicants get to know there are the right people to answer their questions and their doubts. In addition, they make their own comparisons with other trial jobs. For the trainer, too, trial sessions are the best way to get an idea of applicants: are they punctual and reliable, willing to be shown things and to memorise? Can they read, write and calculate correctly?
  As far as physically demanding work is concerned, I was impressed anew every year how 15- or 16-year-old boys, who had usually had a leisurely time in their last year of school, began to develop into strong young men within a few months, for example working as electricians on a building site in all weathers. Only rarely did anyone complain; mostly they were proud of their achievements and of their increasing strength. If I asked one of them to carry a pile of books upstairs for me, he would say, “You think that’s hard? It’s so easy.” Standing all day usually bothered them much less than sitting all day when at school.
  And this is really out of the question for the young people of today? Maybe some of them do find it more difficult - but the path via practical exercise and human relationships is still the only viable one today.

More prevention to avoid “increased psychological stress”?

The Pro Juventute employee quoted above believes that many young people today are hit by a “multi-crisis” because they are affected by the climate crisis, the Corona pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. If young people felt better, he said, there would be fewer apprenticeship contract terminations. In view of the “increased psychological stress on children and young people”, the cantons had a duty to ensure prevention.3
  When one considers how many young people from all over the world sit in all our school classes, who (or whose parents) have come from far more difficult life situations, from war and misery, to safe and prosperous Switzerland, where every child is allowed to go to school and every young person is allowed to complete an apprenticeship or secondary school – should we not be ashamed to talk about “increased psychological stress” just because for a few months, our children experienced distance education instead of face-to-face lessons and because we should all do our bit to reduce energy consumption? In other countries, many young people in lockdown did not even have a mobile phone, and it is absurd to set up the climate crisis as a reason for dropping out of teaching.

Lack of educational foundations in primary school

Poor school performance of apprentices is only briefly touched upon in the above-mentioned article, but it cannot be argued away: our apprenticeship companies need school leavers who, after nine years of schooling, have a reasonable command of reading, writing and arithmetic, who can hammer in a nail and draw a neat triangle (no rule of thumb estimates, but use of compass and ruler), who arrive at the workplace on time, greet customers properly and allow themselves to be guided by the apprentice master without permanent discussions.
  Many business representatives had hoped for more “competent” apprentices through Curriculum 21 and the associated paradigm shift. Although we critics made every effort to disabuse them, Curriculum 21 slipped through, thanks to massive propaganda commissioned by the state but not committed to the truth. Due to the lack of structured instruction in primary school, many apprentices lack the solid academic foundations that are indispensable for an apprenticeship and for vocational school.
  How many apprenticeship contracts are terminated because of poor academic and/or job performance remains obscure. But in my experience, a significant proportion of apprenticeship terminations are related to lack of achievement, including the drop in performance caused by drug addiction or excessive playing of games on the computer. In some professions, the barrage of mind-confusing “competencies” can also lead to dropouts. Finding an adequate solution in such cases is not easy and, in any case, only works if the young person goes along with it.

“Wrong career choice” –
contract termination or continuation?

In case of difficulties arising from the person of the apprentice or his relationship to his apprentice master or in case of the young person wanting to change to another profession, the question arises for all persons involved: Where does it make sense to encourage a young person to continue, and where would it rather strengthen him to leave? Ultimately, it is the young person’s decision, yet it still takes empathy of those involved, and also their determination to regard a young person as strong and to have confidence in him to do what is necessary and possible.
  In the more than three decades I taught at a vocational school, I had many students who would actually have preferred to learn another profession, but eventually, for various reasons, ended up with their present apprenticeship. Interestingly enough, most of them would become friends with their profession if they had a good environment in the company. I encouraged quite a few young men and women, who had been able to rebound after negative experiences in secondary school and who made good progress in their apprenticeship companies and at vocational school, to go on after completing their apprenticeship, either training in their desired profession they had formerly been unable to get an apprentice position for, or with some other advanced training. I am happy to say that quite a few of these young men and women did so and were successful. But I also remember an example where I helped a young person to look for another apprenticeship after his prolonged attempts to find the “connection” with his apprentice master, because this intrinsically upright young person was threatening to lose his courage and joy in his profession. The whole class helped in the search for a new job. Such a constellation is rather rare, but you have to have a feel for it. Only a few times have I seen an apprenticeship company go bankrupt. Lucky Switzerland! Most of these students also found shelter in a fellow student’s apprenticeship company.
  Let us do everything we can to keep the dual VET system alive, which is so beneficial to our youth and our social
cohesion!  •

1 Balmer, Dominik and Cornehls, Svenson. “Berufsbildung in der Schweiz. Noch nie haben so viele Junge ihre Lehre abgebrochen” (Vocational education and training in Switzerland. Never before have so many young people dropped out of their apprenticeship). In: Tages-Anzeiger of 30 November 2022. Latest figures on the start of apprenticeships in 2017, educational trajectories until 31 December 2021: https://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/de/home/statistiken/bildung-wissenschaft/uebertritte-verlaeufe-bildungsbereich/sekundarstufe-II/aufloesungen.html (in German; tables in the appendix).
2 Balmer, Dominik. “Commentary on apprenticeship contract terminations. The record figures are a warning shot”. In: Tages-Anzeiger of 30 November 2022
3 Balmer, Dominik and Cornehls, Svenson. “Berufsbildung in der Schweiz. Noch nie haben so viele Junge ihre Lehre abgebrochen” (Vocational education and training in Switzerland. Never before have so many young people dropped out of their apprenticeship). In: Tages-Anzeiger of 30 November 2022

Dual vocational training system as an important integration factor

mw. “The historically developed VET system in Switzerland [...] leads to an early introduction to the world of work already at the age of 15 or 16, it even helps young people with a school weakness or from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds to develop manual skills outside of school, and it confronts young people with the competitive hardship of the labour market at an early age. […] But for all the hardship […], the result is higher labour market skills and a higher standard of quality and ‘state of the art’ (rules of the art) in every occupational sector.” (Rudolf H. Strahm. “Warum wir so reich” sind – Why we are so rich. Bern 2010, pp. 68/69)
  At WorldSkills 2022, the Swiss national vocational team once again did extremely well, winning 19 medals in 34 disciplines1. As Rudolf H. Strahm explains, these successes are also due to the good Swiss VET system.
  An example from everyday life: Recently, a carpenter and his apprentice carried out a repair in our household. The young man was really “chomping at the bit”, always ready to lend a hand when his apprentice master approached him. He was in his first year of apprenticeship, he told me in response to my question, and you could feel how it strengthened him to be needed as a co-worker and at the same time to learn his trade, three days a week in the company, two in vocational school.
  So, they still exist, these pleasing apprentices, they are even still in the majority today. And as Rudolf H. Strahm described it more than ten years ago, the dual VET system is needed today more than ever so that weaker students or those from families of different cultures and languages can be integrated - and also for the high-achievers who would rather “create something with their hands” than attend school: Thanks to the permeability of the Swiss education system, all paths remain open to them all.

The vocational training system as important
moment of social and national cohesion

“The vocational training system is a key factor in productivity and competitiveness. But it is also the most important factor in social integration, social and national cohesion and the prevention or at least limitation of poverty. […] In an international comparison, Switzerland integrates a larger proportion of young people and adults into working life thanks to its vocational training system, and therefore has the lowest youth unemployment and the lowest unemployment rate in general.” (Rudolf H Strahm. “Warum wir so reich sind” – Why we are so rich. p. 43)
  The dual VET system is based on cooperation between the cantons, which provide the vocational schools, and the companies which are willing to train apprentices. SMEs in particular (over 98% of companies), but also many large companies (at least those with a grounding in the country) perform this their task. However, they depend on the cantons to provide appropriate schooling, as they have done since the 19th century.
  The fact that most companies take it for granted to do their part in the vocational education of our youth is an effect of the direct-democratic Swiss model. They do this just as they do unpaid militia work in their community and in social and cultural institutions and associations.
  One of my colleagues in vocational school employed 4-5 people in his agricultural machinery company and trained 2 apprentices. One day a week he taught vocational skills at our school. Like most master teachers, especially in the manual trades, he contributed significantly to the development of his apprentices into capable professionals – and he even discussed the next referendums with them during their breaks.


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