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Expat workers ride bumpy Swiss job market
Some companies are cutting jobs while others struggle to fill positions. Photo: Alan Clark

Expat workers ride bumpy Swiss job market

Morven McLean · 24 Feb 2016, 13:27

Published: 24 Feb 2016 13:27 GMT+01:00

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The year began with news of thousands of job cuts at leading Swiss companies Credit Suisse, Alstom, Swisscom and Zurich Insurance.

If that wasn’t bad enough the government then published unemployment figures for January showing a jobless rate of 3.8 percent – the highest level in six years.

Since the franc was unpegged from the euro in January last year, many Swiss companies have struggled to fill their order books, and around 1,000 jobs have been lost every month, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).

The figures show that foreign workers are more likely to lose their jobs than Swiss.

Though comprising less than 25 percent of the population, foreigners account for 48 percent of the registered jobless.

“This is primarily due to the fact that foreigners are overrepresented in areas and professions where the risk of unemployment is greater, such as the construction and hospitality sectors,” SECO spokesman Fabian Maienfisch tells The Local.

This dates back to the policy of the 1970s and 80s when companies recruited large numbers of low-skilled workers from abroad.

However for the past 20 years the economy has relied more on highly qualified foreign staff who are less likely to face redundancy.

“The risk of becoming unemployed is very decidedly an inverse function of the skill level,” says George Sheldon, professor of economics at the University of Basel.

Changing market conditions

While some companies are cutting jobs, others are struggling to fill vacant positions.

Labour economist Sheldon says job growth in Switzerland has outpaced that in any OECD country since the recession of 2008.

“No areas need foreign workers per se, they need workers, period. If employers can’t find them domestically, they have to recruit them from abroad,” Sheldon tells The Local.

“There is a skills shortage in many branches,” confirms Bernhard Salzmann, head of communications at the Swiss Trade Association SGV.

“Food services, the hotel industry, the finishing trade and construction always have a higher demand for skilled workers than the Swiss market can meet.”

While demand remains strong in other branches too, such as engineering, banking, medical devices and bioscience, recruitment consultants say a shift is taking place on the job market.

“More and more Swiss companies are looking to save costs and we are seeing an ever increasing pressure on the professional services market due to relocation of roles to lower cost locations,” says Jenny Johnston, CEO of the Stamford Group.

Areas under pressure include administration services, HR services, procurement services and IT.

In addition, clients prefer whenever possible to hire candidates who are already living in Switzerland, says Johnston.

Charles Franier, executive director with the Page Group in Geneva, echoes this, saying he has witnessed a big change in the market in the past six years.

“It is getting more challenging to find a job here. As a foreign worker you need to have an advantage over the Swiss candidate,” he tells The Local.

“Clients are looking for specialists, experts in a particular field and people who can adapt,” he says.

Migrant workers may need to be flexible in terms of location and pay, according to Franier. But in return they can expect more benefits from employers, including flexibility over working hours, home working, health insurance contributions and longer holidays.

Mounting insecurity

Until the implementation next year of the initiative to curb mass immigration, passed in 2014, the free movement agreement with the European Union continues to hold, and nothing stands in the way of companies recruiting from EU countries.

But Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which currently has around 230 jobs open in Switzerland, says uncertainty among expat workers is already noticeable.

“Qualified applicants and even many people already working in Switzerland are fundamentally unsure about how welcome they are in Switzerland and how long they will be able to work here,” Thomas Bösch, Head of Human Resources at Novartis Switzerland tells The Local.

The pharma company – which employs 13,000 people in Switzerland, two-thirds of them foreigners either resident in Switzerland or cross-border workers – says it is already harder to recruit from non-EU countries.

“Novartis is concerned at the quotas for third states, as its success is largely dependent on the availability of qualified labour not only in the EU area but in the rest of the world,” says Bösch.

As for the future of foreign workers on the Swiss labour market, the consensus is that it depends on how the initiative is implemented.

Novartis says it hopes for as much flexibility as possible. And SGV says there should be no rigid targets for reducing immigration.

“It is crucial that the government implements the mass immigration initiative in a way that best meets the needs of business,” says SGV’s Salzmann.

For more news from Switzerland, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Morven McLean (news@thelocal.ch)

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