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Coming home


Returning Swiss find re-integrating an uphill battle




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For people returning home after years spent abroad, finding work and feeling at ease in the workplace are often the largest hurdles to overcome. Those heading back to Switzerland are often blindsided by how difficult the transition can be.

“You have to expect it will be difficult, you can't expect it will be easy to return,“ says Tiziana Campailla in hindsight; she returned to Switzerland from Spain in 2012. “I thought I would have more help, be welcomed more – but it wasn't like that at all.“

Campailla is one of the roughly 25,000 former Swiss abroad who return to their homeland every year. While each case is different – some have jobs to return to, others are following spouses – there are those like Campailla who would welcome support. After difficult years in the wake of the economic crisis in Spain, she had high hopes for her return to Geneva. But the reality was completely different.

According to the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), there is no concrete contact point for Swiss looking to return to their home country – they must first register in the canton where they will be living and then see what services are available locally. In rare cases a consulate or embassy abroad may be able to provide repatriation assistance, and the OSA has a very small budget for temporary loans of a few hundred francs to help repatriates adjust.

Campailla says she was completely unprepared for how little support she found when she did arrive back in Switzerland, having expected more to be offered. Time spent with an employment coach yielded neither a job nor suggestions on how to improve her CV, and she was not eligible for unemployment aid because she had been working in Spain before returning.

“It was difficult for me because I had to go to my old employer [in Geneva] to ask for help,“ she says. “Before going to Spain, I had worked for social services, and that's where I ended up going for help.”

Today, although Campailla has found part-time work, it took her almost two years to do so. She’s not sure why it took so long – maybe because she’s getting older, or because her time abroad wasn’t looked at positively by employers. She did notice a certain aversion to her time in Spain among the recruitment agencies she applied at in Switzerland.

“For me, having gone abroad was a great experience, it proved that I could adapt very quickly to new situations, but that's not at all what people think,“ she says. “It's as though I had left too long ago, had forgotten how things worked in my country and as though I hadn't been working like everyone in Switzerland.“ 

Self-advocacy

Thomas Wyssenbach has studied the effects of long-term stays abroad on the Swiss who return to their homeland, having written his bachelor’s thesis for the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland on the topic. Among the repatriates he interviewed for his research, he found that when it came to specific aid services, none of those who needed help were able to find what was available. And his research also showed that potential employers are neutral at best towards the concept of having spent time abroad.

“In Switzerland, having spent a lot of time abroad is still usually looked at negatively from an employer’s perspective, that this is a person who knows how to enjoy life but will leave again soon.“

But Wyssenbach’s research also showed that when it comes to finding work, people who spent time abroad do have something unique going for them. He found that those who have the courage to leave Switzerland and establish themselves elsewhere possess certain personality characteristics – which happen to be exactly what many employers say they are looking for.

“The people who go abroad already bring qualities with them that allow them to function in a different environment,“ he explains. “If they aren't the right people to be abroad, then they come back pretty quickly. Those who stay abroad have a certain character type, and those qualities are exactly the ones you see requested when you look at job adverts.“

Examples of such characteristics uncovered by the study include intercultural awareness, communication and language abilities, flexibility and a willingness to see things from another perspective.

That seems like an ideal situation for returnees looking for jobs – except that too often, neither they nor potential employers are tuned into that, Wyssenbach’s research found.

“People returning to Switzerland shouldn't just argue that they were abroad and had nice experiences but be able to concretely explain how they were able to benefit from it and what competencies they gained from it,“ he advises.

“The fact that you spent time abroad doesn't count for much.”

Staying flexible

Barbara Handschin was successful in selling the qualities she developed while abroad, because she was forced to adapt to a completely foreign situation.

Since she followed her husband to Boston for his work in 2008, she started completely at square one in a new county and a new city, armed with a special Swiss degree in clinical psychology that wasn't recognised by the Americans. So she did a certificate in teaching Pilates while looking for psychology research jobs, eventually landing work on a research project that combined the two fields.

Once back in Switzerland, that flexibility and experience in multiple areas paid off, and she quickly found similar work at the University Hospital in Basel studying the effect of exercise on cancer patients.

“I think it’s very important to stay open minded and not be too fixated about some ideas you have,” Handschin says of changing countries and finding work. But despite the ease with which she re-integrated into the Swiss workforce, she says her family’s move back to Switzerland is far from permanent.

“We kind of knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, but it was harder than we expected,” she says of the transition, citing social differences and “intolerance” she experienced. “It took until now to feel settled and pretty much okay – over a year.”

“For now, we decided we would stay here for another three or four years, then see where we’re at and make another decision.”

Fitting in at work

In his research, Wyssenbach also found that those returnees happiest with their transition back to Switzerland are those who found “a work environment where they can use as many of their abilities as possible and surround themselves with people who have had similar experiences.” 

Frequently being sent overseas in a work context eases the transition as well.

That was the case for Claudia Dietschi. When she decided to head back to her native Switzerland after 13 years spent abroad in Ireland, Spain and Asia, she knew she wanted to continue working in an international environment.

Having worked at companies like Google, her transition to a new job at a US-based technology company in Zurich was fairly seamless, especially since she still travels abroad all the time for work and hires people from all over the world.

But she’s not sure she would have done as well in a Swiss company, mostly because she’s totally unfamiliar with the social and professional expectations of a Swiss workplace after so many years away from her home country.

“I wouldn't exactly know how to handle that,“ she says, pointing to the example of Swiss clients who send e-mails at 7am while her company starts work later due to international time zones. “Even the fact that I haven't really worked too much in German could be limiting.”

“I think I found the right job for me because I can use the skills that I learned abroad and apply them on a daily basis.“

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