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For trailing spouses, a move is about self-exploration

Life is pleasant but unrewarding for many trailing spouses in Switzerland. Partners who want to work need patience and a network. In a country dependent on well-qualified foreign labour, help is increasingly available, if you’re able to pay.

On a Wednesday afternoon in April, Bern’s Rose Garden is a popular meeting place. Children play on the swings, teenagers relax on the wall overlooking the capital’s old town, and the waiter in the restaurant is busy delivering cappuccinos to people chatting at tables in the sun.

“I feel like I should be doing something,” says Kristina Held, a 27-year-old American who moved to Bern with her husband nine months ago. He’s an accountant for the multinational Internet marketplace eBay. She has a master’s degree in English language and literature and postponed a career in publishing to follow him to Switzerland.

Sitting next to her, Richard Davis, aged 48 and British, nods. He and his wife are among 250 foreigners who were relocated in 2013 to Burgdorf, a town near Bern, by US technology concern 3M. Now his wife is the breadwinner and Davis is proficient at putting together IKEA furniture. The company’s trailing spouses have developed a social network, he says, but “those of us who have worked [in the past] are starting to get itchy feet, as we say”.

Happy spouse, happy house

Making sure that the families of employees are happy is crucial for a company that imports foreigners, says Sabine Binelli, who oversees the Spouse Career Centre in Basel and Zurich. The company was started in 2001 as a pilot project after a wave of employees imported to work in Basel for Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis opted to return home.

“Novartis was really shocked and they didn’t have any idea what happened,” says Binelli. Interviews with the people who had left showed that “it was not due to the unhappiness of the employees. They integrated very quickly. They had the same jobs, the same people around.” Rather, Novartis “realised that the families – and especially the spouses – couldn’t integrate”.

To address this problem, more and more major companies and business organisations are developing spousal support programmes. Meet & Greet, run by the Solothurn Economic Development Agency, features monthly tours of area businesses and cultural attractions that help relocated employees and their partners build up a network of contacts.

Scintilla AG, a Solothurn-based subsidiary of power tools manufacturer Bosch, offers its trailing spouses €3,000 (CHF3,700) per year toward continuing education, language courses, career counselling, and other forms of personal development.

“I sometimes tell them, ‘You know, this is your chance to do something for you’,” says Andrea Rieger, a human resources manager with Scintilla. “We’re paying for it because we want to make it a positive experience for the entire family.”

Help with job-hunting

Rieger and HR representatives from other companies in the area have also joined up to help each other. In September they began meeting once a month to exchange information about trailing spouses from their companies who have interesting job profiles and want to work.

Four months of job counselling at the Spouse Career Centre in Basel costs around CHF10,000. This is not much, says Binelli, when you consider how much a company spends to relocate employees. “If they hire people internationally usually they have to pay the headhunter. They have to pay for the relocation service, for the housing, the schooling. So the integration support is really key. It’s an essential part of this whole package, but the fee is quite modest.”

How exactly does a career counsellor help? Diana Ritchie, owner of the Spouse Career Centre in Swiss Romande, says job-seekers have to do a lot of work getting to know themselves. She begins by asking her clients questions. What kind of work were they doing before they came? What would they like to do? Do they speak French and English? Are they willing to start with some voluntary work?

“Knowing who you are, what you have to offer, and who’s interested in it are really the three building blocks to succeeding in a job search,” Ritchie says.

One of the people Ritchie and her team are working with is Lucia Della Torre, an Italian lawyer specialising in immigration and asylum law. Della Torre arrived in Lausanne in September, after her husband, a materials scientist, accepted a tenure-track position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne.

Della Torre speaks Italian, English and Spanish. Now she is “studying French like crazy” and looking for a job.

Della Torre has found two unpaid positions in her field – one in Lausanne and one in Geneva. She is perfecting her French, taking part in research, and making contacts. “They’re paying me with the experience that they are giving me,” Della Torre says. But she sees volunteering as a stepping stone, not an end in itself. Being paid for her work is important to her “because I believe I could provide quality work, and I believe that that should be rewarded”.

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Doing the groundwork

Richard Davis is also working with a career counsellor, paid for by 3M. His first task was to update his curriculum vitae. “Because I’d worked for one company for so long, I didn’t really have an established CV in any form that was any use for applying for jobs in Switzerland. It was quite handy for moving between jobs in IBM, but it was very specific to their needs.”

Now Davis is working on a cover letter, and pulling together all the documents that are needed for an application. “There’s quite a lot of work that goes into getting ready to even apply for a job,” he says.

Like Della Torre, Davis is learning the local language – German. But his German is limited, and it will be a long time before he can use it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, jobs using English are centred in Geneva, Zurich and Zug, and commuting several hours per day from Bern doesn’t seem feasible to him.

Kristina Held doesn’t have a company to help her in her job search. She looks for jobs online, does some freelancing for magazines in the US, and – like many English-speaking women who move to Switzerland – is considering getting a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language.

To keep up her writing skills she maintains a blog. “It keeps me focused. It gives me something to do in the mornings right away, and it keeps me sharp and creative and always sort of thinking.” Still, she says, often “I’ll get to 4pm, and I’ll think, ‘What have I done all day?’”


Feeling unfulfilled is a common theme for many foreigners who come to Switzerland from countries where people define themselves through their jobs.

“I would really like to be able to do something with my life, apart from staying at home,” says Della Torres.

Scintilla’s Rieger says she counsels newcomers not to set their expectations too high. “Don’t put too much pressure that you think everything has to fall into place in the first three months, because most of the time it will not.”

For Davis, one of the few male trailing spouses relocated by 3M, it’s a new experience, staying at home. After half a year, life has become routine. “I can fill my day,” he says. “It’s just whether at the end of it I’ll feel as though any of it was enriching for me.”

Kristina Held agrees: “It’s hard to balance that feeling of, what did I really do to give back today? Or give to somebody else? Or the world at large? How am I a contributing member of society?”

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR