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Off to School (Part 4): Apprenticeship

Apprentices - Paul-Georg Meister /

Imagine the following fictional conversation between a young Swiss and a young American. (S = Swiss, A = American)

S: What do you do for a living?
A: I'm a consultant in one of the larger banks here in Switzerland.
S: Interesting. How did you get this job?
A: Well, after finishing grad school I worked for an American bank for a while before applying for this position. I wanted to get some international experience, you know?!
S: Good for you!
A: What about you? Where do you work?
S: I'm an accountant. Small firm but interesting work.
A: Ok. So, you got your bachelors degree at a local university and then started working?
S: Not quite. Actually, I didn't go to university at all. I didn't even finished high school. Instead, I did an apprenticeship.
A: A what? And you didn't finish high school?
S: Indeed!

The concept of an apprenticeship is quite a foreign concept to people from a non-european background. In Switzerland (and Germany, Austria and other places) it is quite common not to finish high school but to leave regular school at the age of 16 (after nine mandatory years of school) in order to start an apprenticeship. Only 38% of Swiss youth complete high school with the Matura certificate which will allow them an exam-free entrance to any university in Switzerland. *

Most of the other 62% of Swiss youth opt for a 3 or 4 year** long apprenticeship called a Lehre. This word comes from the word lehren (to teach) and means that the youth is being taught a profession during several years. Actually, apprenticeships have been around for centuries in most European countries. A master craftsman, e.g. a smith or carpenter, would take in an apprentice and train him in his craft over several years. Once done with their training the young men would then start their Leutsch or Wanderjahre (traveling years) during which they travel from city to city and work in several different places learning new and different techniques.

Nowadays, most apprentices skip the traveling years. Also, the teaching is split between professional on-the-job training in a company and theoretical studies at a vocational school or college. This means the system is standardized and apprentices finish their apprenticeship with an official federal diploma which in turn allows them to study at most vocational colleges in Switzerland. Apprentices can also choose to add an extra half-day to their schooling and complete the professional Matura which means they can matriculate in any university of applied sciences in Switzerland. Apprentices also earn a salary. It isn't much but it helps cover expenses and since most apprentices still live at home it usually is enough.

Fields of Apprenticeships
There are six main areas for apprenticeships in Switzerland:
  1. commercial-industrial
  2. commercial and retail
  3. health care
  4. agriculture and forestry
  5. social
  6. design 
Each field has dozens of options for apprenticeships. This means that there is a wide selection of available professions for Swiss youth. Examples include carpenters, merchants, doctors assistants, nurses, masons, electricians, bakers, and many many more.

Apprenticeship in Swiss German
There are several Swiss German words that describe the apprentice or an apprenticeship. Here is a short (and incomplete) overview:

Lehr (apprenticeship)
Lehrmeischter (instructor of apprentice in company)
Lehrbetrieb (company that trains apprentice)
Lehrling (apprentice)
Lehrlingslohn (apprentice salary)
Ober-Schtift (lit. upper pencil, apprentice who has been in the company longer)
Schtift (lit. pencil, apprentice)
Schtifti (lit. pencil-ship, apprenticeship)
Unter-Schtift (lit. lower pencil, apprentice who has been in the company shorter time)

Related Posts:
Off to School (Part 1): Kindergarten & Primary School
Off to School (Part 2): Secondary & Middle School
Off to School (Part 3): University

* One exception: Future medical students muss pass the Numerus Clausus exam before being admitted.
** There is also a two year apprenticeship called Anlehre which is a good option for weaker students since the academic requirements are much lower. Obviously, the federal certificate of an Anlehre is not as valuable as the regular one.



  1. Very, very, very interesting.
    I think it is a great thing that people can choose each's lifestyle from many. The fact that something like apprenticeship is as influential as schools is just amazing for me, and I believe that it has good influences on diversity of individuals.
    I'm so lucky to find and read this. Thank you very much, Irene!!


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