Apprentices get a reality check

For the past year, a team of apprentices has been carrying out real-world tasks and projects for the ETH community. An initial review of the pilot project shows that this hands-on approach works: the programme has allowed young trainees in the fields of IT, interactive media design and business administration to acquire important skills for the working world. 
The Young’n’Rising team consists of one coach and eight apprentices. (Image: Martin Schneider / ETH Zurich)

Established in August 2019, Young’n’Rising is the name of ETH’s new interdisciplinary team of apprentices. Consisting of one coach and eight trainees, the group provides IT, design and communication services to internal customers at ETH and ETH-affiliated institutions, even developing their own brand identity in the process. As part of the apprentices’ multi-year vocational training, Young’n’Rising aims to teach skills such as how to work independently, cope with time pressure, manage expectations and deal with limited resources. This functions as a kind of "reality check”, giving young trainees insight into how the working world actually works and how quickly things can change when working on a project. The team’s biggest project to date – a job for Cybathlon 2020 – showed them just how thin the line between success and frustration can be.

IT specialists-in-training Jonas Wiesendanger and Yanick Moser were tasked with programming an interactive world map that would allow visitors to find out more about the Cybathlon’s international participants via touchscreen. Two interactive media design apprentices designed the interface for the map. Yanick Moser was assigned the role of group project leader. “Everyone was in awe of a big customer like the Cybathlon,” he says. “So we ended up having to hold a lottery to assign the project leader role.” The apprentices had to work together across disciplines, coordinating within their team, sharing information and ensuring that deadlines were met – a process that allowed them to benefit from each other’s field-specific knowledge. “The design wouldn't have turned out so nicely if we had done it alone,” says Moser. Coach Martin Schneider praised the group for their teamwork. “They have a good group dynamic and were able to solve a lot of problems by working together,” he says.

Experimenting across disciplines

In order to carry out the Cybathlon job, Wiesendanger and Moser also had to acquire software development skills – knowledge that would usually fall outside of their specialisation. This is one example of how the Young’n’Rising framework allows apprentices to dabble in fields outside of their disciplines.

One new experience for the two apprentices was negotiating their duties with the client. This allowed them to take on various parts of the project while learning how to estimate the time required and keep track of deadlines. As young apprentices, however, they were not yet used to saying “no” in a working environment. This shaped their main takeaway from the project: clearly define your scope from the beginning to prevent unnecessary stress from arising later down the line.

The team worked on the project for six months. The map was scheduled to be unveiled at the Cybathlon in May, but the corona crisis forced the event to be postponed – leaving the apprentices without valuable real-world input on their work. “We would have liked to have seen the feedback from visitors,” laments Wiesendanger. “It would have been good to know if we did too much – or too little.”

IT training getting a makeover

The Young’n’Rising training programme was jointly created by the IT Services, Services and HR vocational training office as part of an effort to modernise the four-year IT apprenticeship. The IT support groups of the departments and central bodies of ETH Zurich were also involved in the further development of the training. For the first two years, young trainees learn the basics of computer science in the IT learning laboratory. Interdisciplinary learning is woven into the curriculum, with systems specialists and software developers studying side-by-side during the initial two years of the programme. Following this introductory training, they then apply for apprenticeships in different departments throughout ETH. Marc Winkler, head of the IT vocational training programme, explains: “When talking to other trainers and former apprentices, it became clear that there was a need for greater emphasis on project work and work that spans across different professions.” Although Young’n’Rising is still in its pilot phase, there are already plans to give all third-year IT, media design and media technology apprentices the opportunity to participate in the special training unit for half a year.

One business administration trainee is assigned to the group for over a year and a half, providing continuity despite the constantly rotating team composition – an important role to fill now that the first generation of Young’n’Rising is about to move on. However, Jonas Wiesendanger and Yanick Moser admittedly would not mind staying a bit longer: their project work for Young’n’Rising has been a way to give back to the ETH community.

Even when ETH switched to emergency operations, the Young’n’Rising apprentices continued forging ahead with their project work. They played a critical role in establishing the “Lern mit mir” (Learn with me) platform, where ETH apprentices provide tutoring to younger students. They are also hard at work on strengthening the Young’n’Rising brand: the group's two interactive media designers will soon release a short video to boost awareness of the group's services. Furthermore, two media technology trainees are set to the join the group and provide further reinforcement. Administrative and academic departments at ETH Zurich in need of support can submit their projects on the Young’n’Rising website: