Jobs and the Future of Work

The future of work requires a return to apprenticeships

Apprenticeship programs are part of the future of work

Apprenticeship programs can help global companies fill available jobs and train and reskill workers, says Mercuria. Image: Mercuria

Matthew Lauer
Head, Strategy and Communications, Mercuria Energy Group
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Education, Gender and Work

One of the major concerns of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that artificial intelligence and automation – robots – will eliminate jobs, both blue-collar and white-collar roles across a variety of sectors.

While C-3PO and WALL-E might be good at processing algorithms, they can never replace living, breathing, thinking humans entirely in the workplace. From the auto factory producing a fine-tuned machine where safety and functionality are of utmost importance, to the commodities trading floor where high-value transactions must take into account complex, rapidly changing geopolitical movements, businesses of all kinds still require human intelligence.

And these humans must have bespoke skills and sharp problem-solving and decision-making abilities to fulfill these jobs – jobs that will remain lucrative and dependable, regardless of what robots come along.

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The real challenge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, then, isn’t the robots – it’s that we aren’t properly training humans for the available jobs.

As the World Economic Forum has noted, while the outlook for jobs is positive, on average, 42% of skills requirements are expected to change by 2022 alone. Reskilling is one of the major necessities and challenges of our era.

Many of these skills can’t be learned in the university lecture hall. The skills required for the skilled job at the auto factory aren’t taught in the traditional university – and you can throw an intelligent, highly educated graduate with a business or math degree on a commodities trading floor, and there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed.

But if you put the intelligent, intuitive individual on the factory floor or trading floor to learn the complex supply chain and shadow the most skilled in the business, then you not only give them a well-paying job with growth potential, but you also give them the bespoke skillset to flourish in the role and the industry.

This model isn’t new. It’s apprenticeship – which Swiss companies have been engaging in for a long time. Right now, it’s something global companies would be wise to consider, too.

Training the financial leaders of the future

Since the Middle Ages, students in Europe have pursued vocational apprenticeships. The tradition remains strong in Switzerland today, with 2/3 of young people in Switzerland pursuing dual-track classroom and vocational training in more than 250 fields ranging from health care to IT to electrical work to cooking, tailored to jobs available in the marketplace.

And many Swiss-based companies have adapted their apprenticeship models to increase their talent pool abroad, with great success.

Apprenticeships are part of the future of jobs
Swiss companies bring apprenticeship programs to the United States. Image: U.S. Embassy in Switzerland

Zurich Insurance needed to fill underwriting and claims associate positions in the United States. The company established a first-of-its-kind U.S. apprenticeship program for the insurance industry, which resembles the program Zurich has run for many years in its Swiss headquarters. Zurich works with local colleges to educate and train people to work in the company’s critical business areas.

UBS is another example. The Swiss-based multinational investment bank and financial service provider has likewise taken its model beyond Switzerland.

In a recent post, UBS CEO Sergio P. Ermotti, a former stock trader himself, said, “It's no secret that apprenticeships are close to my heart – I know first-hand how effective this kind of education can be and how far it can take someone. After all, I started my career as an apprentice at a local bank in Lugano, Switzerland.”

Mercuria, the global energy and commodities trading group founded in Geneva, has also embraced apprenticeships in Switzerland and the United States to fill our constant need for workers who can adapt and learn new skills.

After purchasing the commodities businesses of J.P. Morgan Chase and Co in 2014, we found a lack of training programs to bring more people into the profession. This was a missed opportunity not only for our company, but also for individuals looking for high-wage, high-growth jobs. We worked with the U.S. and Swiss governments to create an apprenticeship program to train this under-utilized talent at our hubs in Geneva and Houston.

In Switzerland, Mercuria was instrumental in developing trainee positions for students in the Master of Arts in International Trading, Commodity Finance, and Shipping at the University of Geneva. And in the United States, we recruited veterans who had completed their U.S. military service to gain practical skills and knowledge through on-the-job training as well as formal classroom education.

During National Apprenticeship Week this November in Washington, DC, the Swiss Embassy showcased how the Swiss-style apprenticeship model can be adapted for various companies and industries, and how it can benefit people of all ages and backgrounds with the principles of lifelong learning. In honor of Veterans Day, some of Mercuria’s current and former apprentices talked about how they learned the skills necessary to compete and thrive in this highly competitive sector.

Chris Inlow joined Mercuria’s first class of apprentices after completing active-duty service in the U.S. Navy, where he intercepted drug traffickers. He also has a Bachelor’s degree in political science and a Master’s in business administration. His education and experience provided skills like critical thinking, decision making and teamwork, which he says could be “transferred to the business world, setting the course for limitless professional development at all levels” – if given the right opportunity. After concluding his year-long apprenticeship, Inlow was hired full time as a contract analyst at Mercuria in Houston.

Another example is current apprentice, Rachel Ramierez, who was injured after her Humvee rolled over an anti-tank mine. “As happens to far too many transitioning military members, I became lost after I was medically retired from the Marine Corps,” she explains. As an apprentice, she says she can “transfer the valuable leadership experience that I gained in the Marine Corps to the business sector.”

The future of work requires public-private partnership

At the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work Summit in New York, which happened at the same time as National Apprenticeship Week, corporations and thought leaders examined the scale of the changes expected in workplaces of the future – changes that can only be tackled by public-private partnerships. We have a surplus of people who are educated but don’t quite have the skills to fulfill companies’ needs. And we have companies with jobs that don’t have skilled applicants. With apprenticeships, government and the private sector can work together to quickly, efficiently and adequately train and reskill workers to fill these gaps, while providing opportunities for intelligent but underutilized communities.

Mercuria’s commitment in the United States coincided with the signing of an agreement between the United States and Switzerland, providing a framework for cooperation in areas such as work-based training, curriculum development, credential recognition, pathways to career development and the expansion of programs into new sectors. Now, more than 30 global companies based in Switzerland are bringing or expanding their apprenticeship model to their U.S. facilities, in industries including banking, pharmaceuticals and automotive.

Working with the U.S. and Swiss governments and the World Economic Forum, Mercuria will continue our long-term commitment to growing our own workforce through reskilling living, breathing humans to meet the challenges of 4IR – and leave C-3PO and WALL-E to continue working algorithms.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkFourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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