Who has an edge in the Swiss job market?
Even in a time of crisis, the Swiss have not lost their time-honoured reputation for accom-modating their job-seekers. According to data compiled by the Créa Institute of Applied Microeconomics, Swiss exports have declined by 14% in the first quarter of 2009 and the Swiss economy as a whole is predicted to shrink by 3.2% in 2009 and by 0.8% in 2010.
Despite the significant economic downtown, however, unemployment rates in Switzerland have remained among the lowest in the world, at a yearly average of 2.6% throughout 2009.
Job prospects are especially bright for foreign nationals seeking work in Switzerland. Due to federal laws that guarantee equal salaries and working conditions for non-nationals, Switzerland has long been a haven for foreign employees. There are currently 1.5 million foreign residents in Switzerland, 50% of who reside in Geneva where droves of international organizations and multinational corporations employ English-speaking foreign nationals.
However, recent developments in Swiss hiring policy have made competition uneven for different categories of foreign job-seekers in Switzerland.
Good news for EU nationals
In 2004, European workers got a significant leg-up in the Swiss job hunt when a second round of bilateral negotiations between Switzerland and the EU resulted in a renewed Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons that waived Swiss hiring regulations for foreign job-seekers hailing from EU-17 and EFTA countries. As of today, EU and EFTA citizens enjoy virtually unlimited access to the Swiss job market.
Today, obtaining a Swiss work permit is far simpler for EU citizens than it was in the days before the agreement. Employers no longer have to prove that there are no qualified Swiss candidates to fill available positions before hiring EU nationals, nor are they permitted to favour Swiss nationals over equally qualified EU citizens in their hiring decisions. Consequently, job-seekers from EU and EFTA countries are no longer required to present specialized degrees and high-level qualifications to obtain a permit, and are much freer to hunt for jobs in any skilled or unskilled sector.
Following the renewed Swiss-EU agreement in 2004, the migration of EU workers into Switzerland increased dramatically, as did the number of cross-border day commuters from neighbouring countries. In 2005, EU nationals comprised roughly 62% of foreign workers in Switzerland, with the number of workers from western and northern Europe in particular increasing by 3.8% since 2003. German migration also rose sharply by approximately 8% in the last five years.
Despite early fears among Swiss citizens that opening the door to foreign EU workers would result in higher unemployment rates and lower wages for Swiss nationals, the influx of EU job-seekers in recent years has not had a significant impact on either of these indicators. One possible reason is that EU job-seekers are often highly qualified and fill positions in high-growth sectors such as communications systems engineering, microtechnology, biotechnology, finance, law and foreign language teaching where there is a current shortage of specialists. The most recent wave of German migrants, for instance, is predominantly employed in the university and health-care sectors.
A double-edged sword
On the other hand, another reason that the large influx of EU migrants over the last few years has had little impact on job market conditions could be due to the fact that the Swiss government has been steadily tightening the regulations against their non-EU counterparts. Despite opening doors for EU workers, the Swiss-EU agreement may have also created a two-tier system when it comes to the granting of work visas to foreigners.
Although less than half of all Swiss work permits available for non-EU nationals are granted each year, the requirements for obtaining one are so rigorous that many non-EU job-seekers – including Japanese, Australians, Canadians and Americans – are often forced to back out of their contracts. Such was the experience of Cathy Johnson, an American expatriate who was denied a work permit for a communications position in 2005, despite the enthusiastic backing of her Swiss employer and a university degree in her area of specialization. In all Swiss cantons, caseworkers handling applications for work permits strictly enforce the laws requiring employers to actively seek out Swiss and EU candidates before hiring non-EU nationals for the job.
The enormous amount of paperwork that must be filed in this lengthy and often expensive process has unfortunately discouraged Swiss employers from hiring beyond European borders. As Johnson’s tale indicates, those who do brave this process often fail to secure the permit, since there is likely to be an abundance of equally qualified European candidates for entry and lower-level positions in even specialized, skilled sectors.
Finding a niche
Although today’s job prospects for foreign non-EU nationals look grim, reports on Swiss hiring conditions for non-EU workers agree that finding a professional niche could be key to securing a position in the Swiss job market. Highly qualified managers, senior executives and higher-level specialists and technicians always have top priority when it comes to work permits. English-speaking employees of United Nations and other international organizations also enjoy preference in the process, as do the relatives of those who already hold Swiss work permits.
Traineeship programmes could also serve as an indirect avenue into the Swiss job market. Since the requirements for trainees are usually lower than for full-time employees, non-EU job-seekers denied work permits could still eventually secure an entry-level position through trainee programmes, which also help build the qualifications and skills needed to secure full-time work permits.
The Swiss have come far in opening the doors of opportunity to their EU neighbours. However, until further national legislation is passed to improve hiring conditions for non-EU nationals, the latter will have to rely on special skills and niches in order to gain an edge over their European and Swiss competitors.
Article by Karin Sun