USA launches vocational education

Swisscom's apprenticeship scheme serves as model

After years of preparation, it's finally going to happen late this summer: the launch of vocational education in the USA. The scheme is aimed particularly at rejuvenating all aspects of established companies outside Silicon Valley. And it takes Switzerland as its model.

Roger Baur, 7 July 2017

If you want to make history, you have to get up early to do it. Forget jet lag; despite the long journey from Denver the air is alive with energy on this early July morning: the delegation from the USA has come with the aim of revolutionising vocational education back home. In just two months’ time the first apprentices will begin their apprenticeships in parts of the state of Colorado. Based entirely on the Swiss model, the apprenticeships are in highly qualified professions that were previously only open to college graduates. The group is now here for one last time to spend two weeks in Switzerland gaining some final experience under the aegis of ETH. This morning’s itinerary takes the visitors to Swisscom as a model for the IT sector.

Visibly impressed: Governor John Hickenlooper talking to a Swisscom apprentice. © Jana Wicky

It’s the end of the first chapter of a story, that broke at the beginning of 2016. At the time Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper set out on a grand tour of Europe on a fact-finding mission to examine and compare educational systems. At Swisscom’s headquarters in Bern he talked to apprentices and was impressed by a system that “apparently not only trains, but also transforms young people. At the time I couldn't imagine that a young person in the USA would be capable of taking on this huge responsibility,” says Hickenlooper. He returned home and has since advocated the earliest possible introduction of vocational education “explicitly following the Swiss model”. He captured the interest of other governors and the apprenticeship system is now in the pipeline in several states from Kentucky to Washington as a result.


Learning hands-on learning in the USA: why Colorado is introducing Swiss-style apprenticeships – by Salomé Näf and Loriane Sonderegger, Swisscom apprentices 

But why has this system aroused such interest in a country looked upon as the cradle of western innovation? During the visits government and business representatives painted a more nuanced picture; one of a country beset by recruitment troubles. Beyond the public focus on high flyers in Silicon Valley, many large established companies which are about to lose their most creative minds as they enter retirement. In theory, their potential successors are good – but only in theory. In practice, college graduates have difficulty in applying what they have learned, a process that sometimes takes years. So a company with a record like Swisscom’s attracted great interest on the part of the visitors; not least because apprentices play such an active role in everyday operations. From a virtual marketplace of countless offers, they select the projects that suit them and in which they participate for a set period of time. This ensures the trainees soon become talented newcomers whose opinions also carry weight within the projects. So apprentices not only influence the company – in some cases they even spark new developments or found a start-up within the company, like one recent example.

Swisscom is among Switzerland’s most innovative companies

Over a period of several years an interdisciplinary research team commissioned by «Bilanz» business magazine conducted a survey on the innovative power of Swiss companies. The researchers published their latest survey in the July issue – and ranked Swisscom third among the Swiss companies in the survey, after Logitech and Roche.

Swisscom drives innovation in many areas – like the Digital Business unit where it has been exploring new avenues of innovation since the end of 2015. One of these is open innovation and the creation of multiple interfaces with Swiss start-ups using incentive and cooperation programmes or shared work areas.

Swisscom also constantly pursues innovation within the company: Swisscom TV is largely an in-house development, tailored to the needs of Swiss customers. Launched last year, the "Internet Box 2" router was also completely developed in-house. And in the network area, Swisscom is among the most innovative companies in the world. "" technology on conventional copper wire can now achieve speeds of up to 500 Mbit/s, for instance. So suburbs and peripheral regions benefit from speeds that they would otherwise only achieve with direct access to fibre optics.

Innovation at Swisscom

From networks to start-ups, open innovation to La Werkstadt, and products to partnerships: there is a lot going on internally and externally in Swisscom’s innovation sector.

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