How does vocational training and education work in Switzerland?

Vocational training and education in Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the few countries that does not have a clear divide between vocational education and academic learning. Unlike in the UK and US, only around 20% of students are able or willing to choose a baccalaureate track (called gymnasium in German) as a direct path to university.  At least two-thirds still opt
for vocational training and education in one of more than 250 professions. Switzerland offers a unique dual education system, which combines vocational and academic studies with paid on-the-job training. 

What is less known is that the Swiss system allows students to combine vocational training with higher studies, leading to a professional baccalaureate. Upon completion of the so-called Berufsmatura, students can either enter one of the 8 Swiss universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) or sit a University Aptitude test to gain access into university.

The number of those who finish their 3-year vocational training diploma and acquire a professional baccalaureate on top is on the rise. In the near future, the Swiss education department expects numbers to be at the same level as the number of students going down the purely academic baccalaureate path.

Schnupperlehre – the first step into the professional world

Many parents are not aware that preparation for vocational training and education, or apprenticeships, starts well before they finish their 3-year lower secondary school. Just 18 months after completing primary school, students will have to complete one of several so-called taster apprenticeships (Schnupperlehre). However, it is getting increasingly difficult to find a company or service willing to accept students. In some cases, students have to first attend an information event before they are ‚allowed‘ to apply for the position. The Schnupperlehre itself can last from one day to two weeks. 

One mum who has been through the process recommends that students start applying to companies for the actual apprenticeship position at the beginning of 3rd grade of secondary. „Be prepared that might take a while. My daughter tried from the beginning of 3rd grade and in spring, she still hadn’t managed to get any offers. We persuaded her to try other professions and to go for more Schnupperlehren. After 3 more taster Lehre, she finally got a job offer in the company that she liked“

Rising pressure

At the same time, pressure in school is also on the increase. Students need good grades in their second year of secondary school in order to successfully compete with other students for the more popular apprenticeships. It is not just grades that matter: The school report also assesses attitudes to working and learning as well as social skills and in many cases, these are the ones that matter most. Not only do companies ask for a formal application including the school report, but many now also require students to sit an aptitude test to independently assess subject skills as well as extra-curricular competencies, such as spatial sense, ability to focus or personal, social and methodological competencies. 

How can you help your child? 

Start early! 

Most students will start applying for an apprenticeship position in their second year of secondary school. Those who have not managed to get a contract before the end of the school year will find that there are few positions left as they enter their last year of school. 

Taster apprenticeships

You child should trial several professions to narrow down options and once they have found a profession they like they should then try out taster days in other companies within that sector.

Support your child with the application process

Unless you are fully fluent in the local language, it might be tricky for you to help your child with writing an application. Your child will know what needs doing and you can always ask a friendly neighbour to check on her application. School or vocational centres might also offer support.

Check out alternative options

Look at all possible options! These range from Lehre, an orientation year in grade 10, to professional high school (WMS, Fachmittelschulen…) and private schools offering GCSEs and A-levels. 

Don’t panic…

Even if your child embarks on a professional qualification and then has a change of heart there is always a way to continue onto further education, even though you may have to resign yourself to support your child into their mid-twenties…

Do you need more advice on vocational education in Switzerland?

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