Do Swiss employers really prefer to hire international workers rather than locals?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Do Swiss employers really prefer to hire international workers rather than locals?
Many jobs in Switzerland (like construction, here) don't require university degrees. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

A sociologist interviewed by a Zurich newspaper claims that foreign nationals have a better chance of being hired for top positions than the Swiss, with the latter being ‘disadvantaged’ in the job market. But is this really true?


Speaking with the Tages Anzeiger on April 1st, Ganga Jay Aratnam, a sociologist at the University of Basel, who specialises in labour market and migration issues, argued that “well-trained immigrants who flock to Switzerland” have better skills for top positions, while “Swiss nationals are structurally disadvantaged on the labour market".

The reason, according to Aratnam, is Switzerland’s dual education system, under which only a small percentage of young people go to university, while the majority opt for vocational training (more on that below).

In Switzerland, only 22 percent of young people go to university, while in Germany, 40 percent do, he pointed out.

As a result, the available pool of Swiss workers with higher education “is simply too small.” That’s why companies “get top talent from outside,” Aratnam said. “The Swiss can’t keep up with the international degrees.”

Therefore, "foreigners are often given preference over Swiss competitors because they have the right diplomas".


'Local qualifications and language'

But is this really a common practice in Switzerland, where the law requires employers to give preference to Swiss citizens before offering the job to EU / EFTA nationals? Only if neither can fill the position, then and only then workers can be recruited from third countries.

The Local put this question to Fabian Büsser, director at Michael Page recruitment agency in Zürich.

For Büsser, Arantam’s arguments are not necessarily true, for several reasons.

“Multi-national companies, where most foreign nationals seek jobs, are not the major employers in Switzerland,” he said.

Rather, small and medium-sized enterprises account for two-thirds of jobs and the majority of these firms require local qualifications and [local] language skills,” which foreign nationals may not have.

Foreign nationals are sought for specific export-oriented jobs — for instance, international sales requiring specific language skills and/or networks. But they find it hard to compete with locals on a day-to-day basis if they don’t meet local language requirements.

There is also the matter of work visas — “for example, the quotas applied to foreign nationals – even those with sought after skills – can complicate the employment process,” Büsser said.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Switzerland's planned work quotas for third-country nationals

Last but certainly not least, the biggest demand is for jobs requiring local networks and language skills, including:

  • Craftspeople
  • IT
  • Manager/leader
  • Construction
  •  Business Administration
  •  Assembly
  •  Sales
  •  Project management
  • Healthcare
  • Technicians
  • Electronics


All this means that Switzerland’s dual education system (vocational training) “is appreciated by both local and international employers,” Büsser said.


What exactly is vocational training anyway?

Compulsory education ends in Switzerland at age 16, when students have a choice between going to a university or opting for a three-year vocational education and training (VET).

More than two-thirds opt for a VET pathway, a three-year, dual-track programme that includes two days in a vocational school and three days getting an on-the-job training in their chosen sector.

It includes a variety of fields such as business and commercial, administration, retail, tourism, construction, information technology, arts, wellness services, as well as various trades — in all, 230 professions.

At the end of three years, during which apprentices are paid wages, they receive a VET diploma — the Federal Certificate of Proficiency (EFZ in German, CFC in French, and AFC in Italian) — which entitles them to work in their chosen field.

These articles have more information about VET:

Why is vocational training so popular in Switzerland and how much can I earn?

Which jobs pay the most and least after a Swiss apprenticeship?


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