Could International Graduates Solve Worker Shortages in Switzerland?


Few university students from outside Europe stay to work in Switzerland after completing their degrees. Parliament wants to make it easier for them to join the Swiss labour market, now that the country is experiencing an unprecedented skills shortage.   

Chinese student Lara* is finishing her Master’s degree in international and comparative law at the University of Zurich this summer. She hopes to stay in Switzerland after graduation. “My courses, which had mainly to do with legislation on artificial intelligence and sustainable development, really interested me,” she says. “I am motivated to stay working in Switzerland to understand better the implementation of these laws.”   

Lara has been job hunting for several months now. “I sent in about a hundred applications and got six to seven interviews,” she shares. “I didn’t get any offers so far.”  

Lara is one of about 20,700 students from countries outside the European Union who are being trained at Swiss universities and higher institutions. Non-EU foreign students like her make up about a third of the total foreign student population in Switzerland (61,015 international students).

They include about 4,100 Chinese, 1,300 Indians and 1,000 Americans. These are all classed as students from a “third country”, that is, a non-member of the EU or European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein). Under the current Swiss legislation on foreign nationals and integration, Lara will have six months to find a job after her degree, or she will have to leave the country.   

By law, she can only be offered a job if the employer can prove that no  Swiss or citizen of a country with which Switzerland has concluded an agreement on the free movement of people has the skills they seek.  

Students from EU countries are exempt from permit quotas. In a 2019 report, the Swiss business federation economiesuisse flagged that only a tiny fraction of these foreign students stay in Switzerland after their studies. “As a general rule, graduates from overseas are mobile and soon disappear from our radar,” the report noted.

Only 10% to 15% of graduates from third countries make a living in Switzerland after their studies. Work permits are difficult to get, though there have been more of them issued in the past two years. There were 440 issued in 2021 and another 520 in 2022, according to the State Secretariat for Migration.  

Scarcity of skills

This talent drain is worth examining because Switzerland is currently experiencing a structural skills shortage. It is being accentuated by upheavals in the tourist industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic.   

Over 120,000 jobs were vacant in Switzerland at the end of 2022, a statistic not seen since 2003. Jobs are available in large numbers in sectors ranging from manufacturing, healthcare, commerce, hospitality, the building industry and computer science.  

Graduates from third countries are over-represented (at over 55%) in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) which lead to jobs in the technology, science and computing fields. These are precisely the areas that are facing skill shortages. “Mechanical and electrical engineering have the highest rate of graduates from third countries at 17.5%,” points out economiesuisse in its report. 

The debate on smoother integration of foreign students here – notably those from third countries – has been going on for a while. There are two sides to it.  

“It does not make sense to put money into educating these smart people if Switzerland doesn’t benefit in the end,” argued centre-right parliamentarian Marcel Dobler of the Liberal-Radical Party in 2017, when he proposed a motion to get the federal government to amend the legislation.  

These foreign students do cost Switzerland a fair amount of money. According to economiesuisse, university education (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees) costs CHF23,000 ($25,575) per student per year, and  CHF133,000 per person in total. The foreign students themselves only pay CHF1,580 per year on average, according to the Swiss University Conference, the highest political body of the universities. The difference is covered by the government.   

Legislative amendment

In response to Dobler’s parliamentary motion, the federal government proposed an amendment to the existing legislation on foreign nationals and integration. It suggested scrapping the yearly quota of master’s and doctoral degree holders who may stay in Switzerland for a job if their work “has definite scientific or economic interest”. 

While most parties agreed with the suggestion from the government, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party proposed that foreign students cover all their university costs.   

Others, such as Liberal-Radical parliamentarian Andrea Caroni, pointed out that the yearly quota of residence permits is not really the problem – since 2019 the full quota has not been reached.  

The legislative process is in progress. Any change to the legislation requires a vote in both houses of parliament. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives last March. The Senate will consider it again in the autumn.  

Popular in spite of everything

In spite of barriers to the labour market, Switzerland remains an attractive destination for students from third countries. According to a comparative study done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2020, Switzerland ranks fifth among member states, and second among non-English-speaking countries (after Luxembourg), for the international diversity of its students. 

“I had been studying in China and the US, and I was looking for experience in Europe. Switzerland is a good entry point, for it is both independent and closely linked to the European Union”, explains Lara.  External Content

Switzerland is known for quality higher education, funding of research, and infrastructure. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and ETH Zurich regularly rank among the world’s top third-level institutions. 

“As a country with land borders, Switzerland receives many students from neighbouring countries – France, Germany, Italy. Other international students are attracted by the plurilingualism and pluriculturalism of Switzerland,” says Dimitri Sudan, head of  international relations at swissuniversities, the association of Swiss higher institutions.     

The widespread use of English is also an attraction. “The cosmopolitan makeup of the faculty is an advantage,” adds Sudan. “Some 50% of the professors at Swiss institutions are not themselves Swiss.”External Content

Complex process

For the private sector, hiring a foreign student is complicated. “During the interview, the personnel officer told me that the procedure for requesting a residence permit could be complicated,” recalls Lara. “I had the feeling it was a factor they had to consider.”

In fact, the legislation is not designed to keep students here. To get into Switzerland, any foreigner contemplating a stay here has to guarantee they will leave Switzerland when it’s over.  

“If I don’t find work in Switzerland, I will try my luck in Germany,” says Lara. “I know a few people who have done that. One graduate from a third country found a job there, after trying fruitlessly in Switzerland.”

Source : SwissInfo