print logo

Foreign workforce is absolutely indispensable

 Surprise (Switzerland) 01 November 2019

While right wing parties are gaining more and more votes with catch words like “foreign infiltration”, Swiss companies are assiduously recruiting skilled labour from abroad. A look into the future shows that with the increasing ageing of our society this tendency will not level, but increase. A talk to the Basel Professor of Economy George Sheldon about migration, lack of skilled labour and the labour market of the future. (2314 Words) - By Mena Kost


Herr Sheldon. Photo: Lucian Hunziker

Mr Sheldon, in 2060 9 nine Million people will be living in Switzerland of which about one third will be over 65: On 100 employees there will be 60 retired(???).

This is predicted by a model calculation of the Federal Office for Statistics.

Who will keep our economy running?

Where we will get labour force when it comes tough? Switzerland always has been successful in recruiting labour force from abroad.  We were, are and will be a country of immigration.

Besides, there are still many women working part time, so here there is still an inactive potential.

The same applies to migrants who are not integrated into the labour market.

Only from the Swiss men there isn't anything to get. International comparisons show that they are very active.

Not only in Switzerland ageing is threatening the population, this tendency is predominating whole Europe, including Turkey. Whole Europe could soon be recruiting.

This is a small problem for Switzerland. We beat them easily. Young, ambitious people like the freedom, which one enjoys in Switzerland. I talked to many, especially from Germany, and they say in Switzerland you have more self-responsibility and you can vote on everything. Switzerland offers more leisure activities, the mountains and so forth. Zürich is very popular because of the leisure offers. One should not underestimate this. Switzerland attracts already today nearly as much as professional from OECD countries as Germany does. Although Germany has ten times more habitants than Switzerland. We are very competitive. This should also in the future attract highly qualified.

Rainer Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, wrote recently in the magazine Spiegel:

In about 20 years, China also will need young labour force, and when China starts recruiting, there will be nothing left for good old Europe.

I don t think so. Who would like to live in such a society? In China one will be patronized and centrally administrated. To know, that I cannot make any search on Google…I can't imagine that. Also direct democracy makes Switzerland very attractive. But also China will develop in this direction, as soon as a middle class has formed. This will be the case in about 20, 30 years. People, who enjoy certain wealth, demand co-determination.

We are talking about this period of time. Then China might become attractive as an employer country after all.

But will China's economy still be booming by then? Economical developments are very incalculable.

20 years ago, it was said that Japan would conquer the world. Fact is though, that the Japanese economy has stagnated for twenty years. One can't conclude from the present to the future But yes, work force is a bit in short supply,

Already today Switzerland is dependant on professionals from abroad. At the same time the political right is gaining votes with a restrictive foreign policy, foreign infiltration is in the focus.

The economy isn't fond of a restrictive immigration policy; the influx of foreign workers is a must, if Switzerland wants to remain competitive:  Technical progress is advancing quickly. If he shall progress, one needs qualified labour force. The local population cannot meet the needs. Therefore you recruit abroad. If one doesn't t do this, the progress will stagnate.

These are only predictions, of course. But if they should apply, the recruitment abroad will lead to more progress for Switzerland and with it to a burst of growth.

Do companies not find enough skilled labour in the country?

Currently foreign workers are indispensable. But the level of education among the Swiss population will further increase and maybe the gap can be filled with domestic labour force at some point. Also a stronger integration of women into the market could repair the lack of skilled labour.

How could be women be empowered?

There is a lack of day nurseries for children. Inclusive comprehensive child care is desirable. Later, at school age, block instruction would help. Here at the university we have a women s representative. In my opinion, the position should be axed and money should be invested into a day nursery for children. A female professor does not come to Basel, because we have a women's representative but a day nursery.

For everybody, affordable child care offers cost money.

Here also the firms, the private sector, could get involved. It doesn't t always need to be the state. I find the discussion about the qualification of the child supervisors difficult. Here one should not construct obstacles, otherwise one quarrel with one s own bread and butter.

Is it realistic that the private industry dips into its own purse in order to integrate more women into the labour market?

If labour force is short supply, yes. But the easy recruiting abroad takes the pressure of the companies. But one is for sure: Who is arguing with the so-called foreign infiltration  has to support comprehensive child care.

This would be in any case a possibility to bank the labour search abroad. I would therefore specially expect the SVP to support this matter.

While companies recruit labour abroad, the current unemployment statistics demonstrates: There are more than twice as many foreigners redundant than Swiss.

This is going like this for a long time already. The redundant foreigners today are mostly unskilled, who in the 1970 and 1980 were brought to the country

Until nearly 1990 the percentage of the unskilled among the recruited foreigners was 60 percent. One simply said sought for muscles- employees for construction work for e.g.

These people settled here. And today they are unemployed. In the middle of the 90s the vocational profiles of the migrants changed suddenly.

Today, 60 percent of the foreign labours who come to Switzerland are academics.

Amongst the Swiss working population the percentage of academics today is about 15 percent. Do the highly qualified foreigners take the Swiss the job away?

No, abroad recruited professionals don't take the jobs of anybody. Every company first seeks in the country. The companies only do not find sufficient well qualified people.

Many Swiss though have these kinds of fears. Let s take the Germans  It is said  they were better qualified, more eloquent- and used to work hard…..

But please! Where do they have 35- hour's week? In Switzerland? No, in Germany.

But of course. I am also impressed when I hear somebody from Hanover speaking.  But because of that the Swiss does not need to get an inferiority complex.

And still, in parts of the population the common opinion is: As long as there is one Swiss unemployed, we don t need foreign labour.

But this is naïve.  Here in Switzerland we have a general surplus of unskilled workers- no matter if Swiss or foreign. The companies mainly need skilled workers. But an unskilled Swiss can't replace a professional.

It is also said that redundant foreigners do not return back to their countries of origins but use the welfare system.

Generally, Switzerland profits from foreign workers. The majority of new immigrants are academics and they pay into the welfare system above average.

But yes, among the IV-beneficiaries foreign workers are over represented. They were brought 30 years ago, worked hard at the construction work  and are not able to be integrated into the labour market. This is no abuse of our welfare system; they have a right to a pension.

When the at the begin of the year the economic stimulus program was initiated to stabilize the economy, the SVP demanded that unemployed foreigners should be send away.

The experience of the 70 s, when during the crisis hundred thousands of foreigners returned, teaches us that such a return would lead to a break in consumer demand. Back then, This was massive. Therefore it would not be desirable to have unemployed foreigners migrating. For this reason, the dole- from an economical point of view- is a good thing. These are no alms! The whole society benefits if the consumer demand remains stable.

Unskilled and low qualified are strongest represented amongst unemployed. What has to happen to make them fit for the labour market?

I have to make a rather bitter statement: There is no possibility. One cannot get an apprenticeship for someone who is 30 and maybe has woman and child. This would be an extremely expensive affair. I don t think that the general public wants to pay for that.

The private industry could pay for that.

You can forget about that. More and more you are looking for highly- qualified.

It takes ages in the best case, until somebody unskilled has been trained to an IT specialist.

Until then the company does not exist anymore.

So for these people the economy does not offer any solution.

One option would be that unskilled people with a lot of working experience do an exam in order document their learned qualifications. This would make them more attractive for employers. Most of them will have to put off with a pension or a badly paid job. Who today leaves the institutions without qualification is tomorrow s unemployed.

But for the future one can do something: You can take care that the percentage of unskilled youths, who leave education, is as low as possible.

Amongst the Swiss nowadays about 5 percent of those who leave education are unskilled, amongst foreign youths 20 percent.

At first glance, this doesn't look like success. But if one considers that formerly 60 percent of foreigners were unskilled, the Secondo -Generation already has much better perspectives. But this goes step by step.

So there is the urgent need of investments into education.

The only sustainable educational/political interventions are those in those at pre school age.

This show studies from the US, which are undertaken since the 1960s. Children from classes need to be taken care of from an early age on. With six, seven years this is already too late.

This is where we get to child care again.

Yes, this would kill to birds with one stone. How could one involve women more strongly into the working process? Child care at pre- school age. How can one keep the percentage of unskilled low? Child care at pre- school age. Or even better Compulsory education already at the age of four. Also important is the integration of the parents of these children. Unemployment is not a phenomenon of migration but of the class. In fight against unemployed foreigners we need education and not immigration policy.

Sceneries, which regard the level of education demonstrate:  While until 2060 about 60 percent of the Swiss will have a higher education, only 30 percent of the in Switzerland educated foreign children will reach such an education.

I made no cost- benefit analysis, but my feeling is clear: The follow up costs of the non integration are for sure higher than investment into education. This would be worth it now.

Since June this year the number of unemployed is decreasing. In august the rate was at 3.6 percent, the lowest rate for a year. Will this trend continue?

According to my numbers: Unfortunately not. It will stagnate at this level.

The number of long term unemployed increases. How are the chances for long term unemployed to find a employment?

At first: These are SECO numbers. My indicator shows that the number of unemployed will soon drop again. But in general: After six months the chances of finding employment soon will decrease rapidly. So the best is not to become long term unemployed.

This is not always in ones own hand

Who can should take the latest after six months whatever job. Even if it is not the optimum. Those who stay in the game are more attractive for the market.

There are long- term unemployed who find no job at all.

Yes, 20 percent are still unemployed after a year. Then also wage subsidies, short-term gaining or emergency employment programmes come into consideration. The worst are long-term interruptions in an employment biography.

In Switzerland there are currently 25.00 people between 15 and 24 years unemployed.

Because of the adoption of the AVIG-Revision the benefit time was shortened.

What are the consequences?

The unemployment rate amongst the young is high and achieved because of the following: Youths are often unemployed, but mostly only for short. I think, the reduced periods of benefits will not affect them. The younger, the faster one finds a new job. Who on the other hand is 55 years old, takes on the average one and a half years to find a new job. It would have been more problematical to reduce the benefit time of this age group

What do you recommend: What career should a young person do today to have good prospects?

What subject area one pursues is less important- the level is decisive.


  • George Sheldon (62), Professor of Employment and Industrial Economy at the University of Basel, is a specialist of the Swiss labour market.
  • The economist, who comes from the US and came to Switzerland at the begin of the 70`s and habilitated in Basel in 1988,
  • Well- known are in particular his pre-mature indicators which anticipate the development of unemployment- and whose direction never was wrong.



  • A stronger integration of women could eliminate the deficiency of professionals.
  • Today, about 60 percent of foreigners who came to Switzerland are professionals.
  • I expect the SVP to support child nurseries.

Originally published by Surprise. ©


 Other Language Versions

SNS logo
  • Website Design