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Employment in Zurich

Working in Zurich, you will be participating in one of the most competitive economies worldwide and in one of Switzerland’s strongest regional economies. Switzerland is a very affluent country, which has recovered well after the financial crisis of 2008/2009 and is holding out during the Eurozone crisis. In 2012, the Swiss GDP grew only by 1%, though, but the current prognosis predicts an economic recovery for the future.

However, the unemployment rate remains pretty low, with 2.9% or less in 2012. It grew slightly in early 2013, but seems to have stabilized around the 3% percent mark by now.

A Service-Oriented Economy

The Greater Zurich Area is often called Switzerland’s economic growth engine. This growth is strongly service-oriented. Nowadays, few of the highly skilled labor force are working in Zurich’s manufacturing sector, let alone in agriculture. In the canton, about 80% of all employees work in the service industry. In the city itself this percentage rises to an astounding 90%. The most important field of employment for those working in Zurich is, of course, finance.

Zurich’s financial sector is often considered synonymous with the professionalism, wealth, and discretion of Switzerland’s banks in general. Indeed, Zurich is among the top 10 financial markets around the globe, comparable to New York’s Wall Street or the City of London. In addition to the Swiss Stock Exchange, the city features such household names of finance and insurance as UBS, Crédit Suisse, Swiss Life, Swiss Re, the Zurich Insurance Group, and AXA Winterthur.

Alternatives to Finance

Even if you don’t plan on working in Zurich’s banking and insurance companies, the city and the canton offer plenty of potential employers for highly qualified expatriates. The Zurich Office for Economy and Labor is trying to strengthen other industries in the region. While finance will remain important, it may also lose in significance on a global level. Thus there is even greater interest in other fields to provide job opportunities for working in Zurich: for instance, tourism, health and life sciences, aerospace businesses, and the creative industries attract more and more people who consider working in Zurich.

Potential growth sectors like medical technology, micro and nano technology, and IT/CT profit from the presence of several renowned universities in the Greater Zurich Area. Research and development, as well as business intelligence, benefit from the graduates of Zurich University, the ETH Zurich, or the University of St Gallen. Today’s MBA student or newly minted PhD may become tomorrow’s entrepreneur working in Zurich’s technology park or in the Google engineering labs.

Apart from Google, various other multi-nationals have their Swiss or even European headquarters in the Zurich area. So, you may as well land a job in vehicle engineering (BMW, Fiat, Ford, Renault, Volvo), chemistry and pharmaceutics (Bayer, Pfizer), or business consulting (PWC).

Advice for Jobseekers in Zurich

Executives who’d like to start working in Zurich are often hired via headhunters or international recruitment agencies. However, as a well-qualified expat below the upper management level, you’ll probably have to do most of the work yourself. If you see yourself working for a global player, start by checking the company websites directly. Businesses of that size usually advertise all vacancies online and have a standardized recruitment process.

For networking purposes, the numerous foreign chambers of commerce in Zurich are a good place to start. Austria, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US are among Switzerland’s biggest trading partners. Nationals of these countries or people with professional experience in these markets may therefore have a good chance of working in Zurich. Last but not least, below you’ll find some job search engines that expats dreaming of working in Zurich should check out.

Online Resources

Social Security for Expats in Zurich

Expats living in Zurich enjoy the benefits but also face the occasional disadvantages of Switzerland’s social security system. The latter mostly involve red tape, forms to fill out, and appointments at local offices. On the plus side, social insurance does improve the quality of expatriate life in Switzerland.

Having a health insurance policy is mandatory for all expatriates in Switzerland. The Swiss healthcare system has excellent quality standards, but they are of no use to anyone without medical insurance. To learn more about health insurance in Switzerland, read our article on healthcare in Zurich.

The “Three Pillars” of Switzerland’s Social Security Scheme

The most important part of social security in Switzerland is the national pension plan. It covers old-age pensions (AHV), survivors’ pensions, and disability benefits (Invalidenversicherung), and it is financed in three different ways. These are often called the “three columns of social security”.

First, all employees, employers, and self-employed people pay a monthly contribution into the government’s pension fund. Second, everyone who earns more than 20,520 CHF per year (as most Swiss wage-earners do) is automatically part of a company pension plan (berufliche Vorsorge/Pensionskassen). The “third column” refers to private pension funds. Having a private pension plan is purely voluntary, although the available pension funds are regulated under Swiss law.

Social Security for Expatriates in Switzerland: The “First Pillar”

If you are part of your home country’s national pension scheme, your contributions to the Swiss government’s social insurance plan (AHV) may help raise your old-age benefits back home, or you’ll be entitled to draw a Swiss pension abroad once you retire.

However, this depends on whether or not your country of origin has a bilateral social security agreement with Switzerland. There are such agreements between Switzerland and all EU/EFTA states, as well as Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, Croatia, India, Israel, Japan, Macedonia, Montenegro, the Philippines, San Marino, Serbia, Turkey, and the US.

Nationals of other countries may get a partial refund of their social security contributions when they leave Switzerland. The Federal Social Insurance Office or the SVA Zurich will answer all related questions.

Occupational Benefit Schemes and Private Pensions

For some expats, the money paid into the company pension plan remains on a Swiss account until five years before their regular retirement age. Only then will they be able to access the money and transfer it, for example, into their own pension fund back home.

However, this regulation only applies to expatriates from EU/EFTA member states that remain insured in their home country. Other foreign residents can get back the money from the occupational benefit scheme when they go home. Please contact the LOB Guarantee Fund Central Office if you have any questions on the “Second Pillar”.

If you have either a private pension plan in your home country or intend to start one in Switzerland, talk directly to the bank or insurance provider of your choice. They will be able to advise you if and how frequent moves worldwide may affect your participation in such a private benefit scheme.

Benefits for Expat Families

Expat women working in Zurich — both female employees and self-employed women — have a right to paid maternity leave. Every woman who has worked at least three months before giving birth and has paid insurance contributions for nine months or more enjoys certain financial benefits. Moreover, pregnant women may not be laid off unless they are still in the probation period of their employment contract.

For up to 14 weeks after giving birth, they will receive 80% of their former income (up to 196 CHF per day). If a new mother then wants to go back to work, though, she and her partner have to make childcare arrangements on their own. There is no paternity leave in Switzerland.

All employees in Switzerland — including expatriates — are entitled to receive family allowance for their children. As of 2013, this also applies to self-employed parents. In the canton of Zurich, you usually get between 200 and 250 CHF per child every month. Please ask the SVA Zurich how to apply for family allowance (Familienzulagen).

Working Conditions in Zurich

You Get What You Work For

Most employees in Zurich enjoy fairly good working conditions. There is no national minimum wage in Switzerland, although the pay in some fields of employment is regulated by collective agreements (Gesamtarbeitsvertrag or GAV). Nonetheless, the majority of the working population has a higher salary than in other European countries.

In 2014, the average gross salary across Switzerland was 6,160 CHF per month. In Zurich’s finance industry, salaries will probably be higher. However, the high salaries are due to the high cost of living, and Zurich is one of the most expensive regions in the entire country. If your salary is negotiable, you should take this into account. If you want to know what Swiss people in similar jobs make, have a look at this salary calculator maintained by the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (available only in French, German, and Italian).

From your gross salary, about 10% are directly deducted to pay for social security contributions. You will be taxed on the remaining income. While your actual tax rate will be different, you can assume as a rule of thumb that at least 10% of your salary will go to the Swiss tax office. The remaining sum is your monthly household budget for living expenses, such as health insurance, medical costs, rent, transport, food, etc.

Working Hours and Annual Leave

The legal maximum of working hours per week varies slightly according to field of employment. For most employees, though, it is 45 hours. In 2014, people working in Switzerland put in an average of 41.7 hours of work every week, so contracts with 42 or 42.5 hours per week are common.

As far as paid leave is concerned, you are entitled to take 20 days off every year. The Swiss do live up to their reputation as an extremely industrious people. In 2012, Switzerland’s trade unions organized a referendum to raise the minimum annual leave to six weeks — the proposal failed spectacularly. So, when you start working in Zurich, your contract is likely to stipulate four weeks of paid leave per year.

In fields of employment that are covered by a collective agreement (GAV), older employees or those who have been with the same company for a very long time often get five days more. In addition to your regular leave, you can take all national and regional holidays off, provided that they don’t coincide with the weekend anyway. In the canton of Zurich, these are up to nine more paid holidays per year.

Unemployed: What Now?

If you should be laid off during your time as an expat in Zurich, you may be entitled to unemployment benefits. Everyone who has paid social insurance contributions for at least twelve months within the last two years receives financial benefits under certain conditions. Among other things, you must not have given notice yourself without due reason, and you must prove that you are actively looking for work.

If you fulfill the legal requirements, you will get 70-80% of your income for at least eight months. The exact sum, as well as the duration, of those benefits depends on various factors, e.g. your family situation and the length of your previous employment. In case that you should become unemployed after relocating to Zurich, please get in touch with the local RAV (regionales Arbeitsvermittlungszentrum — regional job center) as soon as possible.

Does unemployment mean that you’ll lose your work and residence permit? Not necessarily so. If your residence permit is due for renewal while you are between jobs, this may become a problem. In this situation, you have no legal right to a renewed permit.

However, as long as you meet the legal requirements for unemployment benefits or have proof of sufficient financial resources, your permit will probably be renewed for another year. Make sure to contact the Zurich Migration Office well in advance and discuss your case to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

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