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Are apprenticeships undergoing a ‘corona shock’?

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting current and future apprenticeships in Switzerland. With around two-thirds of young people taking the vocational route, the consequences could be worrying, experts say. 

The country’s much admired dual-track apprenticeship system sees young people combine on-the-job training with lessons in a vocational school, producing a well-qualified workforce. It is considered one of Switzerland’s economic success factors. But the economy has been impacted severely by the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. 

+ Economic cost of pandemic will be enormous: SNB chief 

+ Switzerland facing biggest economic slump since 1975 

Concerned, the government announced the creation of a task force on apprenticeships earlier this month. “We expect companies to go out of business and as a result, apprenticeship places to be lost. Plus it might become harder for those who have finished their apprenticeships to find a job,” a statement to mark the founding of the taskforce said. 

It wants to ensure that as many young people as possible find training by the beginning of August 2020.  

On Friday the government added that, following the latest meeting of the taskforce, it had freed up extra funding for apprenticeship support projects. 

It has been harder for 14-15 year-old pupils to look for apprenticeships during the lockdown, especially as schools, which support pupils in their search, were closed for eight weeks. Some companies were offering online taster days and video-chat interviews during this time, but not all were able to do this. 

Study: longer-term effects  

The government said on Friday that it expected the effects of the lockdown on apprenticeships – and the subsequent re-opening of schools and economic sector – to become clearer during May.  It also warned that repercussions could be seen over the next few years as well.

Leading education economist Stefan Wolter has already said he expects a large rise in youth unemployment this summer due to the coronavirus impact, as he told several newspapers on May 9.  

The effects could also be longer-term, according to a study published the day before, co-authored with Samuel Lüthi, his colleague at the Swiss Coordination Centre for Research in Education. Depending on how deep the recession is, Switzerland could be short of 14,000- 23,000 apprenticeship places until 2025, the study warned. 

Who is the hardest hit? School leavers still looking for training places (half are already taken); “youths with academic shortcomings” as they generally spend longer looking for apprenticeships; and those looking to crisis-hit sectors such as catering and tourism.  

But there may also be pressure for firms to keep on their older, graduating apprentices (a majority usually move on, clearing the way for new learners), which may not be possible due to apprenticeship contacts with school leavers having already been signed. 

Good and bad news 

The Apprenticeship Pulse research project – a cooperation between the Yousty.ch, the largest apprenticeship jobs platform, and the Chair of Education Systems at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) – has also just published its results on the coronavirus impact. These were mixed. 

The bad news is that 2.8% of new apprenticeships positions for this autumn have already been cut due to Covid-19, according to the training companies surveyed in the project. A further 5.5% are slated to be cut this autumn. 

The good news: “Currently there are still more than 14,900 apprenticeship places open for 2020 – this is almost as many as at the beginning of the lockdown. This means that pupils can still find an apprenticeship which is a good sign. In addition, some firms told the study that they would be prepared to offer additional apprenticeships to give young people a chance,” the authors told swissinfo.ch via email. 

The project also points to uncertainty for graduating apprentices: about 25% of apprentices were working in companies less likely than before to employ them full-time upon competition of training.  

Keep looking 

The situation is also mixed around the cantons: canton Geneva is down by 1,000 apprenticeships on last year, but canton Basel City has reported 44 more contracts signed than last year and no apprenticeship terminations due to the crisis.  

The differences partly arise from the fact that apprenticeship contracts are generally signed earlier in the German-speaking part of the country than in the Italian or French-speaking parts.  

In the meanwhile, experts advise those with uncertain futures to keep on looking. 

“It’s better to start an apprenticeship a bit later and perhaps under more difficult circumstances in autumn than taking on a bridging option. In many cases, a bridge year [between school and an apprenticeship] does not help your chances that much on the job market,” Urs Casty of Yousty.ch told the NZZ newspaper

In addition, some school leavers may have to give up on their “dream” apprenticeship – the most popular one is in office work – and look for alternatives, experts add.