Does Switzerland Have the Answer?
Adopting some aspects of the Swiss approach to workforce development might help US manufacturers find the skilled personnel they need
By Harry Moser
In today's media, talk of the global manufacturing market typically trends towards topics such as low-cost labor eliminating American jobs, or instances of sub-par products manufactured abroad. While these certainly are important subjects, it is equally important to focus on potential benefits resulting from international cooperation. Through positive working relationships with companies overseas, American manufacturers can benefit from best practices of other cultures.
This year's Annual National Apprentice Competition sponsored by the National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA) and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) showcased the type of international cooperation that can provide significant benefit to American manufacturing. As part of a new program called 'Think Swiss,' I guided the top five US machining apprentices/trainees to Switzerland to visit the factories of six leading Swiss machine tool makers. Our goal was to observe Swiss apprenticeship programs, then report back how the Swiss methods could be used to bolster the skilled workforce of the US. This unique opportunity is part of a Swiss Business Hub program designed to encourage the exchange of science, education, and technology between Switzerland and our country. With the involvement of the Embassy of Switzerland, Swiss Consulates, and Swiss Trade Commission, it represents a strong level of partnership across national boundaries.
The trip to Switzerland was organized by Martin von Walterskirchen, Swiss Minister, and his staff. The top three winners of the 2007 NTMA Apprentice contest made the trip: they were Jeremy Graff of Sipco Molding Technologies (Meadville, PA), Stanley Sieczkowski, Hamill Manufacturing Company Co. (Trafford, PA), and Dustin Strasser of Metal Processors Inc. in (Stevensville, MI). Also included were the winners of the 2007 post-secondary and secondary SkillsUSA (Leesburg, VA) competition, Joshua Bovey of Boise, ID, and Jon Welser of St. Clair, MI.
Attendees were given extensive access to six Swiss machine tool facilities. During the day, the US delegation visited the factories to learn about their history, product lines, sales, and current operations. In keeping with the team's objectives, special focus was given to apprenticeship programs. Evenings were spent socializing with the Swiss apprentices, through activities such as river rafting, riding scooters down a mountain trail, and tobogganing. Ideas were just as frequently exchanged over fondue and cookouts as they were in the factories we visited.
To expose the group to a broad spectrum of Swiss manufacturing environments, we visited facilities in the French, German, and Italian speaking regions of the country.
The American team observed cultural differences that help to explain the skilled workforce shortage within the US. Some of these will be more difficult to remedy than others, but all play a role in America's workforce shortage.
Compared to the US, there is much less pressure on Swiss youth to proceed directly to the equivalent of a college-prep high school at age 16. Instead, approximately 60% of them join an apprenticeship program. Rather than being reserved for trades, apprenticeships are available in a wide variety of areas, including commercial, banking, logistics logistics, and other careers. Because of this custom, there is no stigma attached to joining the manufacturing world through an apprenticeship. Perhaps 1% or 2% of American students enter an apprenticeship, it so it's easy to see the effect of the dramatically different attitude in Switzerland.
Because of this different national mindset regarding apprenticeships, Swiss companies typically find themselves with an excess of applicants for each available position. For example, my company, Agie Charmilles, which is Swiss-owned, has anywhere from 15 to 60 qualified applicants for each offered apprenticeship. In addition, Swiss companies typically train two to three times as many apprentices as they plan to employ. This approach allows them to hand pick those apprentices that they believe to be best suited for their specific company. The training provided to those who are not hired is viewed as a contribution to the good of Swiss society. This is a refreshingly different outlook than is usually found in America, where many manufacturers fear that they will provide training, only to have an apprentice move on to another company.
In Switzerland, both apprentices and manufacturers take a much longer-term view of their relationship. Salaries are much lower than would be found in the US, progressing from about $250/month in the first year to as much as $1200/month in the fourth year. The pay scale is consistent with the age of the apprentices and the higher percentage of their time that will be spent in training instead of production. Swiss apprentices typically spend one or two days every week at a vocational school, and require constant supervision from their assigned tutor when in the workplace. Youths will produce less during their time as an apprentice, but the extensive training will allow them to produce more as their career advances. Both sides understand the value of the relationship, and embrace terms that make it financially feasible, with the apprentices realizing that the training received is as much a part of their compensation as is their actual salary.
Our group of Americans noted that Swiss apprentices receive far broader training than is typically offered in the US. In the Swiss system, apprentices spend their first month filing metal. They are then trained in a wide range of machining processes and programming systems. This breadth prepares each member of the workforce for a variety of jobs. In contrast, the Swiss perceive the typical American manufacturer as breaking down work into the smallest possible elements. While this narrow focus minimizes the training a manufacturer must provide to each worker, it results in less process flexibility, and a more shallowly trained workforce.
After observing the differences in how the Swiss approach training and maintaining a skilled workforce, our delegation created the list of recommended actions for the US that appears in the sidebar headed: Developing Skilled US Workers. The responsibility for these six actions falls upon a wide spectrum of groups, ranging from educational institutions to manufacturing organizations to American manufacturers.
I presented the recommendations proposed by the American apprentices to the assembled attendees at the Fall NTMA Conference held in Pittsburgh on October 11. Recognizing the value of these proposals, NTMA has committed to establishing a program for measuring and improving the housekeeping and safety of all NTMA members, ensuring that the reality of our industry matches our claims.
Jeff Kelly, Chairman of NTMA and owner of Hamill Manufacturing comments, "We anticipate that this program will strengthen our industry by improving employee retention and recruiting and shops' operational efficiency and sales. It is important that our walk matches our talk."
As we move forward as an industry, it's important that we constantly strive for improvement. Our best chances for success lie in following the apprentices' example and taking advantage of the benefits of doing business in an increasingly interconnected world.
Developing Skilled US Workers
After observing the approach to technical education followed in Switzerland, the team of US apprentices suggested that US manufacturing companies consider taking the following actions:
- Include nontechnical courses within apprenticeship programs so that apprentices can simultaneously earn an Associates degree. In the Swiss model, graduate apprentices can receive a bachelor's degree at age 23. Allowing US apprentices to earn a degree as part of their training will help to remove the stigma attached to manufacturing jobs in our country.
- Increase the amount of training provided. In Switzerland, approximately 40*50% of an apprentice's workday is spent training. In the US, this number is typically between 10 and 20%. Increasing the amount of training provided demonstrates a commitment to the apprentice's future.
- Allow job shadowing at an earlier age. American high school students usually receive one day of job shadowing in the 11th grade. By contrast, Swiss students receive a full week in the 9th grade. Taking a more comprehensive approach at an earlier age can help to ensure increased interest in manufacturing careers.
- Provide a clear, concrete career path. While Swiss culture emphasizes and understands the path from an apprenticeship to a career, this process is not clearly presented to many US students. If more high school students in the US grasped the potential benefits of skilled trades careers, a far greater number would be interested in joining the workforce.
- Establish standards for shop housekeeping. Manufacturing has long been regarded as a dirty job in the US. Given today's technology, that perception should not be the reality. Shops' commitment and success at providing a better environment for their workers would dramatically improve operations, sales, and employee retention and recruiting.
- Communicate true earning potential. Most of Swiss society understands the high wages that can be earned at a skilled trade. In contrast, most Americans equate earning potential only with a college degree. More students would pursue manufacturing careers if society understood the correlation of income to degrees and training, occupation, and parents' socio-economic level. I am trying to convince the Labor dept to provide such data.—Harry Moser
Learning from Swiss Manufacturing
Mobilizing to Attract Skilled Workers to High Tech Manufacturing was the subject of a full-day conference held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on October 2. The event was organized by Swiss Business Hub USA (Chicago), Switzerland's US Trade Commission, and featured speakers and panelists from business, government, and the educational world.
Opening remarks at the conference focused on Switzerland's concept of apprenticeship, and programs that the state of Illinois has created to attract young people to manufacturing careers. Keynote speaker Edward E. Gordon, author of The 2010 Meltdown: Solving the Impending Jobs Crisis, challenged the crowd to think about solutions to the skilled worker shortage and the shrinking total workforce.
Two panel sessions took place, focusing on the current status of American manufacturing and how we should plan for the future. During the second panel discussion, attendees heard from the five young men who recently attended a tour of Swiss manufacturers. One of the apprentices sat on the panel, expressing the team's viewpoint of what aspects of Switzerland's apprenticeship programs could provide the greatest benefit to American manufacturing.
The main sponsor of the conference, ThinkSwiss, is a program under the auspices of Presence Switzerland, the Swiss State Secretariat for Education and Research, and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
Swiss Business Hub USA
These companies hosted the prizewinning machining apprentices/trainees from the US during their visit to Switzerland.
The company's apprentice program includes both commercial and technical apprentices, and follows the standard Swiss format with practical training at the factory and courses at a local training center.
Mikron Machining Technology
A comprehensive apprentice program includes theoretical and practical training on both machining and assembly applications.
The company's apprentice program helps to ensure a constant source of fresh talent within its workforce.
Fritz Studer AG
Studer offers over 60 apprenticeships in the areas of poly-mechanics, mechatronics, machine design, commercial assistant, IT technician, and logistics assistant.
Tornos relies on its apprentice program to develop professionals who specialize in high precision and embrace the values of the company.
Traditionally providing commercial and design apprenticeships, the company is now also beginning a program within its poly-mechanical branch.
This article was first published in the December 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.