VET Panel at the AmSwiss Foundation – Suzi LeVine

Apprentice Fabian Burz talks to Ambassador and Eric LeVine about production processes at EMS-Chemie. (Photo: Mattias Nutt)

Since the dawn of our democracy, the American Dream has been about opportunity and the fact that anyone from anywhere in society can pursue and achieve a life where they are safe to live, love, and be happy.

What I love about this is that we’ve also exported this as a global dream!

But in the United States, basically since WWII, the paths to that Dream have narrowed to a single route and formula that requires a university degree (and a house and car) – a path that is getting more and more expensive and, frankly, doesn’t necessarily equip our nation with all of the skills we need for the future. Note: unfortunately, we’ve exported that sentiment too, so that more and more nations foster attitudes among their young people that a university degree is the only key to their futures – including here in Switzerland.

While this formula has served our nation relatively well in the past, we need to open up more paths to that Dream in order to continue to be the economic and innovation leader that we are. Our overall unemployment is an enviable 4.9%, but our youth unemployment is almost double that. Add to that the fact that many students leave university in the United States with no skills, no job, and a heck of a lot of debt. We also have anywhere from 10-20% of young people who drop out of high school – and it’s not because they are unintelligent. In many cases, it’s because that mode of learning doesn’t work for them!

Over the course of this election, we have also heard tremendous anguish from people who are still not benefiting from the recession recovery and who are feeling that dream slip from their grasp.

But we are at an incredible inflection point of opportunity.

In the United States alone, we have about 6 million jobs currently unfilled – really great jobs ranging from software developers to engineers to health technicians and beyond. And, while there are some who are ringing alarm bells about jobs going overseas, the reality is that most of those jobs are not moving out of the country. Those jobs went away with the advent of technology – but that technology has opened up new jobs. For example – robots have replaced dirty and dangerous jobs in many factories – but now require more people skilled as robotics engineers to program and maintain them!

Thus, we shouldn’t wring our hands and work to bring those (now) fictional jobs back. We need to rethink how we educate and train (and then re-educate and retrain) our citizens for these new jobs. This is especially relevant given the extraordinary and insatiable pace of innovation we are seeing coupled with our improved health and longer lifespans.

It is time for us in the United States to recognize that which you here in Switzerland have known for some time: that we can have many paths to success and the American Dream, and they don’t all start with a college degree! And it is incumbent on business, government and society to do everything possible to open up those paths.

One of those key new paths is something you all know well here in Switzerland. It’s apprenticeship – a whole new – and yet extremely old – way to gain knowledge and skills through practical experience and learning that puts people into the positions rather than taking a theoretical approach. It also contributes to their maturity and citizenship by giving them responsibility and a paycheck. For example young people doing a commercial apprenticeship don’t just learn the math behind business accounting, they do it as a part of their apprenticeship job. They don’t just study in a book how electrical circuits work, they build the circuits with their hands.

I believe that an Apprenticeship Renaissance in the United States is a key to our long term economic growth and, more importantly, is the key to more people than ever achieving their American Dream!

The really great news is that this Renaissance has already started in the United States – especially with the help of partner countries and companies who deeply understand and benefit from apprenticeship.

In Switzerland and Liechtenstein, as you know, a robust apprenticeship model in which almost 70% of young people do apprenticeships instead of high school in a diverse array of positions is a key contributor to an overall 3.3% unemployment rate and a 2.9% youth unemployment rate. The country also has among the highest GDP per capita in the world and ranks as the 2nd “happiest country on Earth”.

You can see – in the 2 pager in your hands – all of the highlights of this profound ecosystem that I’ve synthesized from my meetings with hundreds of companies, organizations and apprentices over my time here. Two of my favorite stats are the ones about the cost to the cantons or states: at 25K and 14K respectively, apprentices are 40% less expensive than high schoolers for the cantons and that the business/canton/federal government funding breakout is 60%/30%/10%!

There are also more than 250 different positions ranging from software developers to commodities traders to mechanical engineers to waiters to cheesemakers to robotics engineers to bankers to office managers. And more. And because they’ve designed the system to be fully permeable, if, after you’re done your apprenticeship, you then realize you want to go to university, you can. Many CEOs and other executives here started their careers as apprentices. In fact, two of the 7 members of their Federal Council (the 7 person equivalent of our Presidency) started as farming apprentices!

In the summer of 2015, recognizing the opportunity to learn from this model and adapt it to the United States, we signed a joint declaration of intent with Switzerland to collaborate on apprenticeship. At the same time, over 20 Swiss companies agreed to bring and/or expand their robust model of apprenticeship to their United States facilities. These prestigious partner companies range from Nestlé to Zurich Insurance Group to Pilatus Aircraft Manufacturing to Mercuria Commodities Trading and Bühler Corporation and more. Many are already getting great traction:

  • Zurich Insurance started a program in January 2016 for insurance positions in their U.S. headquarters in Schaumberg, Illinois. Because all costs and salaries are being paid by Zurich Insurance, at the end of a 2 year program, graduates will have a job, transferrable skills, a business associate’s degree from Harper Community College and NO DEBT!
  • Daetwyler has created a four year program in North Carolina in partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. Through this program, mechanical engineering apprentices get a journeyman’s apprenticeship certificate as well as an associate’s degree that they can use towards a bachelor’s degree – if they want. They also are receiving a salary and the State of North Carolina now covers the cost of the community college.
  • Regionally, geographical leaders, such as the State of Colorado who just launched CareerWise Colorado, are creating ecosystems that will grow apprenticeship and also make their locations more attractive for foreign direct investment. CareerWise Colorado, for example, is starting with 250 apprentices this year at a blend of Swiss and U.S. companies (Novartis, Mikron, Pilatus, and Intertech Plastics), and growing it to 20,000 in ten years. With startup funding from both the Bloomberg Foundation and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Colorado even just sent a delegation of high school guidance counselors to Switzerland to gain inspiration from the robust system already in place.
  • Mercuria Commodities Trading has launched apprenticeship programs in Dallas in information technology, financial risk, and commodities trading and logistics. They have specifically targeted recruitment of military veterans.

But I want to actually be even more prescriptive on what you all can do – especially those of you in state government, or at corporations:
To accelerate this Apprenticeship Renaissance, here are some recommendations to truly build this out and equip us with a system that will define our economy into the 22nd century!

  1. Engage Business: Create business councils for apprenticeship with companies from across the globe who already do apprenticeship. The businesses are the key to success in the Apprenticeship Renaissance (in Switzerland, they fund 60% of the system – and they define the curriculum) and engaging them deeply to guide and inform the direction of this model in the United States will be critical. States should especially look to bring together Swiss, German, and Austrian companies in local apprenticeship business councils in order to leverage the expertise of foreign-owned companies.
  2. Establish permeability: Ensure that degrees and certifications are recognized sector-wide – and up through the very top universities – establishing a path and not an end along with on-ramps and off-ramps.
  3. Improve positioning: Stop using the language of “College/University and Career Ready.” The more that we continue to elevate “university” as the pinnacle goal for every young person, the more that we ingrain it as the only path. I recommend that the positioning be “We want all of our young people to be career ready – whether that’s through apprenticeship or through academics.”
  4. Increase Prestige: Diversify the registered apprenticeships – Incorporate and create registered apprenticeships in a wide range of fields ranging from white collar to blue collar.
  5. Redefine success: Change the metrics of educational success for states and cities. Instead of just having “graduation rates” – append that to be “completion rates for apprenticeship or high school.” Additionally – evangelize this change to the OECD for how they rank education systems around the world.
  6. Enlist States: Show that the government has skin in the game by encouraging states to pay the community college costs for apprentices with businesses who have registered apprenticeship. Note – don’t use tax credits as an incentive for businesses to do apprenticeship. The businesses who want a more skilled work force believe in investing in those people and don’t need a discount. Ultimately, tax credits just contribute to the race to the bottom that tax incentives facilitate.
  7. Lay the groundwork quickly: Enlist philanthropies at a major level to fund the startup costs to this venture. For example – have them underwrite the costs to convene those industries and the establishment of the standards. Have them also underwrite fact-finding missions for guidance counselors and other key influencers to see the systems in Switzerland and Germany.
  8. Come & Visit: The ecosystem is amazing – but it’s also complex. There is very much a “you have to see it to believe it” phenomenon that happens and I’ve seen the transformation of people into believers time and time again here. As you know, we will leave in 2 months, but our Embassy can connect you with some of the resources who can support your state or business coming here. Also – if your governor is a member of the NGA, I know that they just issued invitations for an NGA delegation to come here and Germany sometime in the spring to dive into this system.

In the meantime, we will be making one final big push for it to become standard operating procedure for Swiss companies to do apprenticeship in the US and for US companies doing it here to bleed it back into their U.S. facilities.

Ultimately, when this system is running smoothly in the United States, it will be great for our citizens, great for our government, and great for business. Young people will be able to choose how they want to gain the skills for their futures; the middle class will have another engine of growth; businesses will have an incredible pool of talent; the United States will become even more attractive for foreign direct investment; and people later in their careers will have an established system for retraining and pivoting to new industries as innovation phases out some positions and introduces new ones.

Thank you, in advance, for the part you all are going to play in this!