For generations, many executive jobs at Swiss companies were traditionally filled with army officers. But the arrival of foreign firms, indifferent to Swiss ways, and a drop in domestic support for the army is threatening the once cosy system.
Besieged by an increasing number of overseas firms complaining that their staff are being taken away from work for military duty, the army has launched a charm offensive in an attempt to convince foreign executives of the benefits of the militia system.
Equally at home amid the mud and explosions of battlefield exercises and multinational corporate offices, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Schudel might be held up by the army as an example of how the Swiss military and civilian business life can benefit each other.
“There is no better training for business management than the army,” Schudel told swissinfo.ch. “It is not about learning to shoot a bazooka at a tank, but the process of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.”
“Putting your personal feelings aside to take care of your team and get the job done builds character,” he added. “Officer training is tough, but so is life outside the army - there is often no mercy in business.”
Double edged sword
But the Swiss army is concerned that 47-year-old Schudel, regional director for Germany, Switzerland and Austria at United States data storage firm CommVault, is one of a dying breed.
The Swiss militia system of regular compulsory military service for all men aged between 18 and 34 is now being viewed as something of a double edged sword by the business sector.
On the one hand, conscription instills discipline, teamwork and problem solving skills into its young recruits. But companies have to cope with employees spending time away from work to regularly attend military training exercises, even more so if they are officers.
To address these concerns Lieutenant General André Blattmann, chief of Switzerland’s armed forces, assembled foreign executives in Zurich on July 3 in an attempt to convince them that the armed forces still has plenty to offer the business community.
Trudging through muddy fields in the pouring rain in Bülach, canton Zurich, executives were walked through a military training exercise of the 11th combat engineer battalion. With armoured vehicles and soldiers charging by, the guests were told of the benefits to the army of having civilian doctors, engineers and construction workers in the ranks.
Companies could also benefit from having their workers experience practical, hands-on leadership training in uncompromising, uncomfortable and stressful situations, executives were told.
Swiss militia system
All Swiss men aged between 18 and 34 are obliged by law to attend compulsory military service. Just over 1,000 volunteer women also currently take part in the militia system.
Some 15,000 men opted for civilian service last year instead of military service. This usually means contributing to various humanitarian projects run by the government.
Military training comprises of a basic seven week course (to be completed at latest by the age of 25) followed by six refresher courses of 19 days each to be carried out by the age of 30 (in some cases by 34).
Non-commissioned officers and higher ranks train for longer. An NCO teaching course lasts nine followed by up to 21 weeks practical service to obtain the rank. Further training is then required for officer training dependent on the rank achieved.
Under plans being drawn up to restructure the armed forces, basic training could be extended to 18 weeks but refresher courses for ordinary ranks would be reduced from a maximum of 260 hours per person at present to 225 hours.
This would result in 100,000 fewer hours being spent in military training each year, the proposal report states.
Officer training would be slightly increased under the proposed changes, with more emphasis being placed on practical training in the field.
Conflict of interests
“We often know the price of something without realising its true value,” Blattmann said in answer to growing complaints of military training interfering with the business world. “The quality of the personnel that we train is outstanding.”
“I am constantly having to explain our militia system to foreign companies,” said Martin Naville, chief executive of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce. “The disadvantage is that a company may lose an employee for three weeks right in the middle of a crucial IT or acquisition project. But the military has become more flexible.”
Not everyone is convinced that military training is the best stepping-stone to civilian career success. Peter Richner, deputy director at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa), believes there is a “conflict of interest” between spending time training as an army officer and pursuing a career in science.
Richner emphasised that Empa does not discriminate against dedicated soldiers, but warned that other job seekers might gain an advantage by focusing more fully on their research.
“What is more relevant to a career in science: three years spent in the military or three years studying at globally renowned educational institutes?” he asked.
“Scientists thrive in a different environment compared to the military – one that is less rigid and structured and allows for free thought, breaking down barriers and switching from independent to collaborative work as the occasion suits.”
The Swiss militia system has found itself under increasing pressure to justify the system since the end of the Cold War and the removal of an obvious enemy near to its borders.
In 1961, the Swiss armed forces numbered 625,000 with a population of six million. The current size is 155,000 that defends eight million inhabitants.
There are plans to reduce the size even further to 100,000 by 2020. The proposal is currently in a consultation phase with parliament expected to debate cuts this autumn.
A more radical proposal to scrap the armed forced altogether – the “Switzerland without an army” initiative - will go to public vote on September 22. It is the third such initiative to go to national ballot in the last 25 years.
Seventeen countries have abolished or suspended military conscription in the 21st Century. Austria voted to keep its militia system intact in January.
But the traditional ties that bind the military to domestic companies remain intact. The Swiss Bankers Association, cement maker Holcim, Swiss Life, Zurich Insurance and the mechanical and electrical engineering lobby group Swissmem still publicly endorse the value of army training for the workforce.
Guy de Brabois, Swiss country manager of financial recruitment firm Robert Walters, agrees that local firms still pay some attention to military careers, but the days of selecting a friend for a top position because they once shared a barracks are over.
For a start, such a decision would not sit well with modern labour laws as it would automatically exclude most women.
“Military credentials are still worth highlighting if you achieved something in your army service, like rising through the officer ranks,” de Brabois told swissinfo.ch.
“It demonstrates that you can take responsibility and have ambition rather than spending your whole military service sitting down drinking coffee in the canteen.”