English-language training targets multinationals

IT apprentices work together on a class project during a lecture given in English
This content was published on December 4, 2015 minutes
Veronica DeVore, Zug,

English is the lingua franca of most international companies headquartered in Switzerland, and now a new educational programme has responded to their needs -training their future workforces almost exclusively in English. 

On a quiet Thursday afternoon at the headquarters of one of those companies, Roche Diagnostics, you could hear a pin drop in the hallway outside the classrooms where apprentices are learning. Inside, they’re fully attentive as teacher Reto Seiz explains the next assignment, in English with a Swiss German accent. 

Some of Seiz’s students are among the first to try out a new international apprenticeship offering, available in canton Zug for students studying to be commercial assistants or IT professionals. 

Who are the ideal candidates for the programme? According to its founder Bruno Geiger, one target group is Swiss students with a high level of English. Another is children of expats who work for international companies headquartered in Switzerland, especially since Geiger says such workers “now tend to stay for a longer period of time…and try much more to integrate themselves and their children into the Swiss system”. But they also tend to be the hardest to convince.  

“The [dual track] education system is complicated and they know the academic path most of the time, so they look first for their children to follow [that] path,” explains Geiger who works for the Zug career development office and as a private business consultant.

The students in the class at Roche Diagnostics are truly an international bunch, with one from the Philippines, others from Switzerland and some even visiting from South Korea on a special one-year exchange. Those involved in the full-fledged English programme are immersed in the language in all learning environments, both in the classroom and at the company where they work. 

Here’s what they and their teacher had to say about learning in English.

Geiger and a colleague came up with the idea for the English-language apprenticeships while networking at an innovation event. The impetus, he says, was a desire to make Swiss youngsters more competitive globally, while boosting domestic labour options for Switzerland’s many international companies. Recruiting workers became a particular concern after Swiss voters chose to place quotas on workers from the European Union in February 2014.

Currently, most international companies headquartered in Switzerland recruit their young workers and trainees from abroad. A survey conducted in March of this year by Swiss Public Television SRF showed that Switzerland-based firms like Novartis, Roche and Nestlé have workforces that are up to two-thirds foreign.

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Although training workers in Switzerland is an option open to multinational companies, Geiger says their leaders are usually quite unfamiliar with the Swiss dual-track career system, wherein 70% of young people go on to learn a trade through an apprenticeship. In most of the companies surveyed by SRF, apprentices made up less than 3% of the workforce, while in Swiss companies like ABB or Swisscom, they made up between 5 and 7%. 

According to Geiger, multinational companies headquartered in canton Zug – like Glencore and Johnson & Johnson – were very open to the idea of bringing on more apprentices through an English-language training programme but needed guidance in doing so. That’s when a firm called Bildxzug came in, taking over the logistics of training the young workers and organising their education in exchange for a fee from the companies involved.

“When an international company starts hiring apprentices, the dual career system is new, everything is new,” points out Beat Gauderon, the director of Bildxzug. “So we take on the role of advising and coaching those people.”

Currently, Gauderon says there are 12 apprentices taking part in the pilot year of the full English apprenticeships, seven as commercial employees and five in IT. Some were recruited after having expressed interest in a previous Bildxzug programme that offered additional English classes and language exchanges. But most had to be convinced, one by one, that the new offering is right for them.

“The number [of students] is still quite small, but the number of individual inquiries about it have surprised us,” he says. “There are a lot of parents with a lot of questions about the career development system here [in Switzerland].” 

Gauderon is confident his firm can convince more and more students and parents of the offering and that it will continue in future. He is always sure to remind expat parents that apprentices in the programme can go on to universities of applied sciences to attain degrees that are recognised around the world.

“Our early experiences show that a lot of people think this is the right way to go,” he says. “With pilot projects, people tend to be a bit sceptical about whether it will continue, whether the programme is right for their child, etc. Once we can prove that it's been successful, I'm almost positive this will become a firm career offering from canton Zug.”

Expansion and question marks

Not all politicians are as enamoured with offering federally recognised career training in English. When the Zug programme was first announced earlier this year, some parliamentarians told the 20 Minuten newspaper that teaching in English could undermine the importance of training in German. 

“Apprentices could start to think that training in German isn’t worth as much,” said parliamentarian Verena Herzog of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party, who comes from canton Thurgau. 

“The apprentices should focus on developing professional skills and should not have to deal with a foreign language the whole time,” felt her parliamentary and party colleague Jürg Stahl of canton Zurich. 

However, Geiger points out that high levels of German as well as English are required to take part in the programme (see infobox). That led to four or five applicants not qualifying to take part in 2015, and he says he is lobbying for the language requirements to be relaxed slightly so that more native speakers of English can take part even if their German isn’t perfect. 

Back at Roche Diagnostics, the apprentices move easily between languages, chatting with colleagues in Swiss German during their breaks and returning to English conversation in the classroom. Working in groups also brings a mix of languages, whatever works best for mutual understanding. 

Student Yannick says it’s “fun” to speak so much English and be in an international environment. Most of the other students agree, even though they also say it can be challenging and tiring. 

Now it’s up to Geiger and Bildxzug to continue to convince other students, parents and companies to take the plunge and give such apprenticeships a try.

“In the end, I'm convinced [they] will see it's a good option and a valuable path within the Swiss education system,” Geiger says.

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