"If Switzerland trains expensive specialists, they should also be able to work here" - Mo-tion Marcel Dobler

Current legal and economic situation

In order to hire a university graduate from a third country in Switzerland, i.e. a non-Swiss and non-EU/EFTA citizen, the employer would have to advertise the job offer in practice for at least one to three months in many cantons (including Zurich) in order to demonstrate search efforts in the sense of priority for Swiss nationals, unless the position is of high scientific or economic interest to the Swiss economy. These are jobs in research and development, in the IT sector and in the field of new technology, or in professions with a recognized shortage of skilled workers. The university degree must be in the same field as the job sector.

Work permits for university graduates are still subject to maximum numbers, i.e. if quotas are exhausted, university graduates from third countries can still not be hired. According to the SECO indicator system, 1,700 Master's graduates and doctoral students from third countries leave Switzerland every year, 1,000 of them from the STEM fields or medical studies, where there is a recognized shortage of skilled workers. According to Economiesuisse, a student costs Switzerland around CHF 23,000 per year and a total of CHF 133,000 per person, excluding the tuition fees of around CHF 1580 per year, which the students pay themselves. After graduating, around 10-15% of university graduates go into gainful employment. The rest leave Switzerland.

Foreign nationals with a Swiss university degree are eligible for employment in areas where they can apply their acquired skills at a high level and where there is not already a sufficient supply of labor. In its ruling of 6 January 2016 (C-3859/2014), the Swiss Federal Administrative Court expressed the following opinion on the concept of high scientific interest:

The term must be interpreted with regard to the freedom of science enshrined in Article 20 of the Federal Constitution (see also BGE 127 I 145 E. 5b). The definition of the term "science" in the application of the law must be made on a case-by-case basis, whereby the practice of the "scientific community" must be taken as a starting point. In view of the legislator's intention to strengthen Switzerland's position in the international competition for the "best brains", which is not limited to certain branches of science, the term "science" must be interpreted broadly in the present context. By name, graduates in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities from a traditional university or university of applied sciences can be admitted with ease, provided they fulfil the requirements of Article 21 paragraph 3 AIG. As a rule, this involves scientific work in research and development, in the application of new technologies or in the application of acquired expertise in fields of activity of high economic interest.

A high economic interest in gainful employment exists if there is a proven demand on the labor market for an activity corresponding to the training, the completed specialization is highly specialized and tailored to the position, the filling of the position directly creates additional jobs or generates new orders for the Swiss economy (see FAC ruling C-674/2011 of 2 May 2012). This ensures that the provision is only applied if there are well-founded indications of an actual shortage of skilled labor in a specific specialist area.

For example, the application of an employer who wishes to employ a nurse with a Swiss university degree in a field in which there is an actual shortage of skilled labor can be approved.

An exception to the maximum number of student permits would therefore be a necessary measure to keep the trained potential in Switzerland. In the National Council, Dobler's motion was approved as long as it concerned easier admission to a work permit for a position in the area of selected skills shortages, but not the exemption from the maximum numbers. The matter is now pending before the Federal Council for revision. It is expected that only the deviations from the admission requirements in Art. 30 AIG will be amended to the extent that foreign nationals with a Swiss university degree (tertiary level qualification) will be admitted to the labor market more easily if their self-employed or employed occupation is of high scientific or economic interest.

What is the current practice?

The job offer must be published on the official platform of the competent labor office, including EURES, as well as on various job search websites aimed at Swiss and EU nationals, such as LinkedIn, Monster.com, etc. To obtain a work permit, the Swiss employer must prove that a regular recruitment process has taken place and that there were no suitable candidates from Switzerland and the EU/EFTA area. In principle, the candidate must be highly qualified and have several years of professional experience. In the case of a Swiss university graduate, the cantons tend in practice to grant a work permit primarily if the activity is of particular scientific or economic interest, i.e. the university graduate has qualified in a special field or fills a gap in the labor market. This includes special talents who may not have a great deal of work experience, but who excel in their field.

There is no special agreement in the canton of Zurich as there is in the canton of Vaud, where the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is based. All EPFL students/graduates benefit from the agreement between the Vaud cantonal government and EPFL on the employment of graduates in the canton of Vaud, without the position having to be advertised. We have the same practice in the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Lucerne, without a special agreement between the authorities.

The procedure for granting a work permit is the same for all EPFL graduates, but without the part of the job advertisement before submitting the application for a work permit.

The procedure for local employment is as follows:

  • Job advertisement by about 3 months (varies from canton to canton, in Zurich it is 3 months, in other cantons it varies from 1 to 2 months - generally not necessary for EPFL graduates employed in the canton of Vaud).
  • Signing of the employment contract - only after the job advertisement has ended.
  • Submission of the work permit application
  • Receipt of the cantonal labor market decision approx. 3 to 4 weeks after submitting the application
  • Receipt of the SEM decision - approx. 4 to 6 weeks after submitting the application
  • Receipt of the final permit from the cantonal migration authority (approx. 2 - 3 months after application) - most cantons do not issue a decision, but the university graduate receives the new residence permit directly with the new purpose of residence "gainful employment".

The change of job and function is subject to authorization if a short-term residence permit is issued, which happens in the majority of cases. After a stay of 24 months with a short-term residence permit, the person concerned receives a B residence permit. With a permanent work permit B, the university graduate is free to change jobs and functions without further ado. In most cases, taking up self-employment is subject to authorization.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.