The labour shortage facing the top 20 Swiss firms

Skilled posts may be hard to fill once immigration curbs are introduced Keystone

Large Swiss companies rely heavily on foreign workers, and their pool is about to get smaller with the re-introduction of quotas on European Union immigrants. But a survey has found those companies aren’t necessarily doing their part when it comes to training a skilled workforce.

This content was published on March 9, 2015 minutes and Swiss public television, SRF

The investigation by Swiss public television, SRF, into the Swiss Market Index’s 20 top rated companies, shows that Switzerland-based firms like Novartis, Roche and Nestlé have workforces that are up to two-thirds foreign. Recruiting abroad will soon become more difficult for them.

An initiative to put quotas on EU immigrants – narrowly approved by voters in February 2014 – will result in the prioritisation of Swiss workers and a smaller pool to choose from.

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Last month the government put forward its plans for quotas for EU citizens, priority hiring for Swiss residents (except in professions experiencing a skills shortage) and boosting the potential workforce within Switzerland, including older employees, women and refugees. Parliament still has to approve the draft legislation.

For firms, training skilled workers from the ground up is one solution to avoid a labour shortage. However, most of the companies polled train far fewer apprentices than what is generally expected of Swiss firms, as the SRF investigation showed. 

Economist Rudolf Strahm wants to encourage the government to take responsibility for informing managers of guidelines regarding the apprenticeship system and has appealed to Education Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann to develop such a framework.

Meanwhile, Anita Fetz, a parliamentarian from the centre-left Social Democrats, has another suggestion for promoting apprenticeships while encouraging the local labour market: she wants companies to add one apprentice position for every ten foreign workers it has.

For pharmaceutical companies like Roche, Novartis and Actelion, which each have workforces made up of more than 60% foreigners, that would mean doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the number of apprentices they train.

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Keeping experienced employees around to train apprentices is also essential to sustaining a skilled workforce. However, the Swiss public television survey showed that a host of major Switzerland-based firms put in place early retirement for their workers in the majority of cases.

In the case of the insurance giant Swiss Re, which was among the companies who retired the most workers early, CEO Michael Liès said that so many people took retirement early because the company has a very good retirement plan. Although he said he regrets the early loss of experienced employees, he said the company is working to keep on a few skilled retirees as consultants to ensure optimal knowledge transfer.

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In February the government presented draft legislation for the introduction of quotas for EU citizens, priority hiring for Swiss residents and boosting the potential workforce within Switzerland, including older employees, women and refugees. The quotas will apply to cross-border workers and to any foreigners who stay more than four months in Switzerland.

Cabinet would set the quotas and contingents and make its decision based on the needs of the cantons and recommendations from the immigration authorities. The government has decided to forego a “rigid defined reduction target” in the interests of the economy. Exceptions to the policy of giving priority to Swiss residents will be made in professions experiencing a skills shortage.

The proposal has to be approved by parliament. The government has until February 2017 to implement the requirements of the new constitutional article. 

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