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University comparison series How easy is it for international students to land a Swiss job?

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Getting a job offer is just one step of many towards getting a work permit

(Keystone)

Like in the US or UK, Swiss immigration regulations restrict non-European graduates from embarking on a professional career in the country. However, recent developments give them a fighting chance. 

Foreign nationals holding a degree from a Swiss university and wanting to find work in the Alpine nation got some help from the law in 2011. An amendment to the Foreign Nationals Act came into effect that allows them to remain in the country and look for a job for up to six months following their studies. The law puts these graduates on the same footing as their Swiss counterparts when applying for a job that is “of high academic or economic interest”external link

During that six-month period, graduates can work for up to 15 hours each week and must show they have housing and sufficient financial resources. The six-month limit for finding a job does not affect EU/EFTA nationals, who benefit from freedom of movement under bilateral agreements. 

International students in the UK are also constrained by immigration laws. Between 2008 and 2012, it was possible for non-UK/EU students to stay in the UK for up to two years after graduation without necessarily having to work. Since then, however, the rules have changed.  International students can work full time on their student Tier 4 visaexternal link after their final term, but only until it expires, which usually adds up to only four months.   

The reduced grace period has made it harder for international students to access work in the UK after their studies. Despite this difficulty, it is still possible to find employment, although planning ahead is essential.   

For international students in the U.S, immigration status is also probably one of the biggest issues determining employment chances, and that’s affecting some students’ thoughts on whether studying there is worth the trouble.  One report notedexternal link a 21% drop in the number of Indian computer science and engineering graduate-level enrollments, perhaps out of concernsexternal link about the Trump Administration’s stance on immigration and the availability of visas.  These concerns are echoed by some college administratorsexternal link

But for students who do study in the U.S., employment is a big challenge. We already covered part-time work during studies, and those restrictions carry-over for recent grads.  Many studentsexternal link, especially those from India and China, are workingexternal link in the U.S. by way of a federal training program: OPTexternal link. This program allows a student 12 months of training after a degree, which can be extended another 24 months for graduates in STEM fields. (science, technology, engineering, and math) One analysisexternal link showed three-quarters of OPT students came from Asia, with 30% coming from India. OPT is just a training program, though, and there have been past reportsexternal link of low pay and long hours, because it’s not considered employment, per se. 

Getting a job

While it’s not known how many graduates from outside Europe end up staying in Switzerland to look for work, authorities estimate they grant roughly 150-200 work permits to such applicants each year. In 2017 authorities issued work permitsexternal link to third-country nationals most frequently for the IT and pharmaceutical industries.  

Regulations on how to get a work permit are considerably tighter than for most Europeans and are often directly tied to employment. Getting a job offer is just one step of many towards getting a permit. A third state national can take a job in Switzerland only if a person cannot be hired from within the Swiss labour market or an EU/EFTA state. Employers must show that they made “intensive efforts” to find a Swiss, EU/EFTA citizen or any foreign national already in Switzerland with a permit to work. Moreover, employers must show why those with priority who applied were not suitable for the job. 

Those with the best chances of being granted a permit include managers, specialists and other highly qualified people, meaning those with university degrees and professional experience. Applicants may also be required to know one of the official languages (German, French and Italian). 

Joint ventures, temporary teaching positions, managerial or specialist transfers, highly qualified scientists, or certain jobs involving art and culture, among others, can also obtain work permits under special circumstances. 

The most common way to stay in the UK after your studies is to apply for a Tier 2 visaexternal link, which allows you to live and work in the UK for five years. To qualify, you will need to secure a job offer from an employer who can act as sponsor (there are about 30’000 companies registered as Tier 2 sponsors) with a minimum starting salary of £20’800 or CHF27,103 (this figure could be higher depending on the type of work you will be doing).   

Employers must also meet certain conditions. For instance, they will need to demonstrate to UK Visa and Immigration that they have made every effort to find a suitable UK/EU candidate for the job before making an offer to an international candidate. Not all employers have the resources or infrastructure in place to do this, which is why it is more common for larger organizations to offer jobs to international candidates rather than smaller ones.   

In short, it can be tricky for international students to get a foot in the door. Yet according to a survey made by Debutexternal link, a student careers website, 72% of the 800 companies surveyed expressed a willingness to sponsor international candidates and 86% believed it was important to hire international talent to improve their company’s performance.  

Students in the US hoping for longer-term employment, with the benefits and salary connected to it, would need to try for a visa, like the H-1Bexternal link. But that is highly competitive, and involves a lottery systemexternal link that leaves many people out in the cold. Students would also need to find an employer to sponsor their work in the country, and that can be hard to do when the chances of staying are determined by a lottery.  There are tipsexternal link for students hoping to find a sponsor in a given field of expertise, like targeting requests to internationally-friendly companies, but know it’s a difficult road. 

As with just about every aspect of studying abroad, universities like the University of Pennsylvaniaexternal link advise students to start with their visa, work, and future planning early. There are many variables to consider, and the more time you have to work them out or change course, the better. 

Starting salaries

In Switzerland, holders of a bachelor’s degree can expect to earnexternal link about 40% more, and graduates with a master’s or doctorate close to 70% more, than a person with a secondary school certificate. For exact figures, check the Federal Statistical Office's online salary calculatorexternal link, which shows the median gross salaries for various sectors and job positions in different parts of the country. 

As far as the UK is concerned, the total median salary upon graduation in 2016/17 was £21,000, according to HESAexternal link. In 2016/17, the most financially rewarding subjects upon graduating (irrespective of institution) were Dentistry, Medicine, Engineering, Economics, and Veterinary Medicine, the starting salary ranging from £31,340 to £28,277. If one takes a longer view, the top three courses producing the highest earners in the UKexternal link within five years of graduating were Economics at Cambridge, Business and Administration at Oxford, and Economics at St Andrews, with annual salaries averaging £63,230. 

It is also worth mentioning that while economics and business courses might appear to be the most remunerative because they produce the highest individual earners, the subject with the highest average graduate earning after five years out of education was, in fact, medicine, with an average salary of £46,600. 

If a foreign student makes it through the US H-1B lottery, and finds an employer, there is the potential for high earning. This visa goes to high-skilled workers, typically in the computer science and mathematics fields. According to dataexternal link from 2016, the median salary for a high-skilled H-1B worker was $80,000 (CHF80,049) per year. A similar U.S. worker had a median salary of just $75,036. 

The road to a higher salary all depends on how competitive an applicant is. The median wage in 2016 for an H-1B worker at Microsoft was more than $126,000, and at Facebook $140,000. So, there’s the potential for high-earning, but there are many hurdles to overcome to get there.

This article is part of a seriesexternal link that compares the university system in the US, UK and Switzerland. Topics covered are based on questions sent in by swissinfo.ch readers.

Our correspondents

Tony Ganzer is an American journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio who lived and worked in Switzerland for many years. He will help examine the American university system for this series. 

Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi, a Canadian journalist based in Switzerland, will report on the Swiss university system for this series. She is also involved in fact-checking projects for swissinfo.ch.

Leo Shearmur is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford and has lived and studied in the UK and Switzerland. He will report on the British educational system of this series.

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