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Meeting the need for skilled workers

Where will highly skilled workers come from in the future? Keystone

In February 2014, Swiss voters passed the anti-immigration initiative, which states among other things that local workers should have priority for job openings. But is this feasible? How can Swiss businesses best deal with the new cap on immigration from European Union countries?

Employers’ hands have been tied since February 2014, when Swiss voters passed the anti-immigration initiative. Where will Swiss employers find skilled staff if they can’t draw from the EU? Three very different people share their views on how the Swiss workforce should evolve.


Magdalena Martullo-Blocher: Education and training 

As the daughter of Swiss People’s Party strategist Christoph Blocher, and a parliamentarian representing the canton of Graubünden and the anti-immigration People’s Party, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher might be expected to toe the party line. But as CEO of the family-owned chemical company EMS-Chemie, the businesswoman is directly affected by the 2014 anti-immigration initiative.

Martullo-Blocher knows firsthand how important highly qualified workers are for Switzerland. With 2,855 employees at 26 production sites in 16 countries, her company is dependent on them, says the CEO. But the people she needs aren’t always available in Switzerland.

“We’re involved in the auto industry, and Switzerland doesn’t have its own auto industry,” she tells “We sometimes need specialised automotive engineers who can produce parts with our special polymers. We get [the workers] from Germany or Austria. And sometimes for research we recruit highly specialised chemists. When we can, we educate and train a lot of these people ourselves.”

EMS-Chemie is the biggest purveyor of apprenticeships in eastern Switzerland, says Martullo-Blocher. It trains 141 apprentices in 15 professions.

“It’s very important that the apprenticeship programme continues,” she says. “Above all, the Swiss workforce needs highly educated workers.”

At the other end of the spectrum are asylum seekers. According to Martullo-Blocher, they are rarely highly qualified, and have too little fluency in the language. They need “a very practical education, and integration, so that afterwards they can find a real job”.

In fact, she says, her father introduced a gastronomy apprenticeship for refugees when he was a member of the Federal Cabinet.

If she had to choose one group of unemployed people to help, says Martullo-Blocher, “I think it would really be the asylum seekers – the ones who have been granted permission to stay. That’s where we should really invest. Because those are young people. And if we can’t integrate them it’s going to cost us a lot for a long time, also in terms of crime.”


Beat Jans: Removing barriers

Beat Jans, a parliamentarian from the Social Democratic Party representing the canton of Basel City, thinks underemployed women and older workers, as well as asylum seekers, can play an important role.

Many asylum seekers don’t work because they aren’t allowed to, says Jans. There is fear that if Switzerland is too attractive, more asylum seekers will come. “So they sit around, and we pay for them. I think it’s a very bad solution.”

As President of the street magazine SurpriseExternal link, Jans sees that many of the jobless people who distribute the magazine “are so incredibly bored. And they know they could do something. Because they want to do something to make their money. And it’s a pity not to help them.”

Jans also believes that barriers should be removed so that women in Switzerland can return to the work force.

“Lots of [young mothers] are highly qualified, but they take a long time to get back into work, if they do it at all,” he says. “And one of the reasons they don’t is that it’s still quite complicated to combine family and a job.”

Removing barriers for women would be the easiest way to increase the pool of skilled workers in Switzerland, Jans believes. “They’re so highly qualified. We have so many well-educated women that do not participate right now.”

There should also be an effort to help unemployed older workers re-enter the market, says Jans. “What’s happening is often that younger [and cheaper workers], that are maybe even better educated, will take these jobs. So we also have to invest in older people, and at least give them the chance to participate.”

Regardless of the group, according to Jans, focusing on education is important. “[We should] make people here qualified enough for all these jobs.”

Courtesy of Peter Gaechter

Peter Gaechter: Profiting from the experience of older workers 

Already at age 50, many older workers in Switzerland find they are too old to be hired, but too young to retire.

Peter Gaechter, age 58, volunteers at “50 plus out in workExternal link”, an organization that offers job counselling and self-help groups for unemployed older people in Zurich, St Gallen, Luzern, Bern and Basel.

One aspect of the anti-immigration initiative is a call for local workers to have preference over workers from abroad for job openings. Gaechter says the idea has grown on him:

“You have a whole bunch of people who are already here – and this isn’t limited to just Swiss people. You have Germans and French and Indians who have come here and have the skills, who may be looking for a job, and would be willing to take a job, but very often companies import new workers. So the idea is to give preference to people who are already here, whether they’re refugees or 60-year-old Swiss people. No difference.”



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Older workers would benefit, he says.

“There’s a lot of skills and competencies out there that are not being taken into consideration. Because people find it easier to take someone who’s younger – obviously – and cheaper. Talk to anyone in Geneva and the place is overrun with French workers. They’re very easy to get rid of when the economy turns down. Then you can simply send them back home again. You can’t do that with Swiss people, so it’s easier to not employ older workers.”

In April, a government-sponsored national conference on the theme ‘Older Workers’ called for more continuing education to bring older workers up to speed. Gaechter agrees with this approach.

“Someone who’s been at a job for 25 years working in a back office in a bank, it’s not because he’s not dynamic enough that he hasn’t moved jobs. It’s because, probably he felt good in the job. But if he loses his job because they move the job to Poland or to Hyderabad, it’s not his fault, either. So give him a chance to retrain, to do something else! Using the skills he has, and perhaps extending them. That’s empowerment!” 

The free movement of people from the European Union was compromised by the February 2014 anti-immigration vote, endangering bilateral treaties between the EU and Switzerland. The Swiss cabinet has until February 2017 to find a solution that respects the Swiss people’s wishes and is also acceptable to the EU.

There had been little progress in negotiations between Switzerland and the EU after the vote, and the June 23 decision by British voters to leave the European Union shifted the EU’s focus away from the issue of bilateral relations with Switzerland.

In Switzerland there have been a number of proposals for how to implement the anti-immigration initiative. On September 2, a parliamentary committee came out in support of a compromise based on a hiring preference for local workers and rejected the idea of imposing quotas on foreigners entering Switzerland. The compromise – which is backed by all the main Swiss political parties except the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – will be debated in parliament.

EU citizens, workers from third (non-EU) states, expatriates’ trailing spouses and families, cross-border workers, and asylum seekers are all affected by the passage of the anti-immigration initiative.

Who should get preference in the Swiss workforce? Share your opinion – and your solutions!

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