Apprenticeships require trust in teens

The factory floor at Switzerland-based Ruag Space, where apprentices learn their trades Reuters

Should teenagers be allowed to operate high-tech machinery and be put to work at a young age? Countries from the United States to Bulgaria must come to terms with such questions when seeking Swiss advice on vocational training.

This content was published on September 7, 2016 minutes

“At the moment I'm working on a cleaning machine for cotton, it cuts out all the dirty parts and the lengths of wool that are too short,” explains Maddy Pierce, an apprentice for Rieter Machine Works in Switzerland. Complex drawings and machine parts are laid out in front of her. She points to each component, explaining the process with confidence.

At just 16 years of age, she’s already part of the manufacturing team at Rieter, working every day on products that will be sent on to customers. At the end of her four-year apprenticeship, she’ll receive a diploma as a mechanical engineer.

Switzerland has a long history of vocational training going back more than 130 years. For its many small and medium-sized enterprises, taking on teenage apprentices like Maddy and putting them on the factory floor is a no-brainer.

Maddy Pierce is an apprentice at Switzerland's Rieter Machine Works

But in other countries that are looking at adopting elements of the Swiss system, it’s not always easy to align current legislation with new needs. In the case of Bulgaria – which is receiving funding and advice from the Swiss government to set up a vocational training network – there have been concerns about whether international labour laws would be breached in the process.

“Children under the age of 16 are not allowed to work full time, according to an international convention on labor regulations that Bulgaria signed,” points out Petya Evtimova, who is responsible for helping implement the Swiss vocational training partnership in her country.

So they found a workaround to allow younger students to begin training.

“From the age of 15, students will still spend one day a week at the company but don't really work,” Evtimova explains. “Instead, they are getting acquainted with the materials and safety regulations so that when they reach 16, they can really have a contract and spend three days per week at the factory.”

One of the latest legal questions to crop up has involved apprentices’ vacation allowance. Workers at the company where they are employed are entitled to 20 days leave per year, but school holidays are much longer, making apprentices question the terms of their work contracts. Evtimova hoped the issue could be solved before the next batch of apprentices starts their training in September.

Colorado reviews legislation

An ocean away, the United States is also ramping up its commitment to vocational education and training, with hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and funding pledged to programmes across the country seeking to expand apprenticeships. According to US Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu, more than 80,000 apprenticeship positions have been added across the country in the last two years.

Suzi LeVine, the American ambassador to Switzerland, told that the state of Colorado has taken the lead by tackling laws that could stand in its way.

“Colorado just passed legislation requiring its workforce board to scour existing laws for any that hinder the rollout of apprenticeships,” she says, adding that these include current child labour laws that could prevent the state from offering vocational training to students at age 15. American laws requiring public education through grade 12 also differ from Switzerland’s system, but LeVine says Colorado is looking at how to implement the ideals and concepts behind vocational training already from kindergarten to prepare students early on.

Company-led is key

Creating the right legal environment is just one part of developing a vocational training network. The key, says LeVine, is finding companies that are willing to lead by example – which includes embracing the concept of giving teenagers access to sensitive equipment and information.

In the US, at least at first, such companies were mostly from Switzerland, Germany and Austria – places with long-established vocational training systems. LeVine points to Zurich Insurance, Daetwyler and Bühler as prime examples from Switzerland; Zurich launched a first-of-its-kind insurance apprenticeship in Chicago earlier this year, while Daetwyler has started training programmes at its North Carolina headquarters and Bühler has done the same in Minneapolis.

Colorado-based Intertech Plastics is one of the US companies delving into apprenticeships, led by its chairman and CEO Noel Ginsburg. Deciding to train young people – and assume all the risks involved – comes down to investment, he says.

“Companies can’t just be consumers of education, they must be producers as well,” Ginsburg argued during a panel discussion at the International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training recently held in the Swiss town of Winterthur. “This must be industry-driven, it can’t come from the government.”

Take it or leave it

In Switzerland, vocational education is mostly driven by industry, built around trade associations that help decide what positions need training and what the curriculum should be. Bulgaria’s trade association network isn’t as strong, according to Evtimova – which is part of the reason why the country’s fledgling programme turned to large companies when getting off the ground.

“One of our criteria is to include companies with strong commitment,” she says. “We don't think we can spend too much effort convincing others, so we’d rather develop a good model with the companies who really want to take part. Then others will see the model and will be convinced by the competition.”

She adds that any company looking to join the programme needs to embrace and not question the idea that young people are capable of performing complex tasks.

Based on what she’s seen in Switzerland at companies like Ruag space where 16-year-olds are building rocket parts, LeVine is fully convinced that teens can become full-fledged company employees.

“We can trust these young people to exceed the expectations that we set, we just need to be able to set them high enough.”

Do you think it's a good idea to give teens a lot of responsibility in the workplace? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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