Jobs and the Future of Work

What's the secret to Switzerland's status as a global talent hub?

Switzerland is a powerhouse in attracting multinationals and creating, attracting and retaining individual talents. Image: PhoHenrique Ferreira on Unsplash

Alessandro Curioni
Vice President Europe and Africa and Director, IBM Research Europe
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  • Switzerland has once again been named the world’s most talent-competitive country, according to two different reports.
  • This pristine Alpine country offers a high quality of life, including excellent education and employment prospects.
  • What can other countries learn from Switzerland about becoming a global talent hub?

Another year, another occasion for Switzerland to shine when it comes to top talent. In 2023, this tiny Alpine country ranked first, again, in two global reports – The Global Talent Competitiveness Index 2023 and the IMD World Talent Ranking. It also ranked first in quality of life, according to the most recent Human Development Report from the UN, and managed to retain first place for the 13th consecutive year when it comes to innovation, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) 2023 Innovation Index.

It is the high quality of life in Switzerland that helps to attract – and retain – top talent. And the talent creates innovation - which powers industry and economy, in a synergistic loop creating value for everybody and thus the high quality of life.

Yes, there is nature – the picturesque Alps, clear lakes and postcard-pretty hills with grazing cows. But this nature wouldn’t have stayed this pristine, and the air wouldn’t have been that clean, were it not for the government's efforts, decade after decade, ensuring the country’s economic development in parallel with environmental conservation and commitment to sustainability.

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These aspects attract top global talent as well as multinationals, drawn by the business-friendly culture of political stability and legal transparency, commitment to intellectual property protection and free-market principles. Global companies establish their presence here and tap into the vast pool of professionals, enabling them to develop further and, in a synergistic way, contribute to Swiss society and to Europe. As for domestic companies, the country’s strong export business focus is the driving force when it comes to innovation, ensuring that they are competitive globally.

Investing in and nurturing future talent

Overall, it’s been a strategic combination of policies. A stable economy is one; then, a world-class education system and mandatory health insurance enable access to top-notch medical services.

In addition to paying attention to sustainability, the Swiss are also very conscious of work-life balance and value their personal time, as well as adequate social support and emphasis on safety and security. Add to the mix the importance of diversity and inclusion nationwide, and you’ve got great conditions for life satisfaction and professional growth.

Kids growing up here have access to top-quality education pretty much from the very beginning in a system that allows everyone to grow depending on their individual talents. When they are around 12, they may opt to apply to gymnasium, or Gymi – the academic track of secondary education that gets pupils ready for university. Another option is the unique vocational education and training (VET). Both approaches are excellent for the development of young talent. While Gymi places a lot of focus on intense schoolwork, the VET is a dual-track system that allows teens to combine classroom learning and internships as early as the age of 14.

When they turn 15, they can decide to do a full-time, year-long apprenticeship, a mix of on-the-job training and theoretical studies at a vocational school. Such early intro to the working world allows young people to enter the workforce seamlessly – and after three to four years, they can still apply to university if they wish.

There are a lot of universities to choose from. Switzerland has several world-class, top-ranking universities, including ETH and EPFL, as well as research institutions. Strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related subjects helps this nation nurture highly skilled professionals. Once they graduate, young people enter a job market that offers robust infrastructure and the commitment of the Swiss government to innovation and research in general. Investment in research and development (R&D) is highly prioritised, leading to an an innovation-driven environment where creativity and collaboration thrive.

Collaboration between industry and academia

Collaboration is encouraged widely – between academia and industry, be it large companies, startups or spinoffs. Collaboration starts even before students graduate. For example, multinationals like IBM Research and others have programmes that see Master’s and PhD students get degrees following a dual academia-industry system. They dip their toes into the research culture of an industrial organization while still students and may end up on top of the ladder should a vacancy appear at the company when they graduate.

Programmes like these further amplify the "brain gain" of skilled graduates and established workers from abroad. For over half a century, Zurich Lab, part of IBM Research, has trained thousands of young people via partnerships with local universities. Many have gone on to win awards and lead projects on groundbreaking technologies. Nearly every year, one or more young people at the lab get nominated for MIT's prestigious "35 under 35" Innovators Award. Alain Vaucher, for example, a computational chemist who developed an AI system that puts together a chemical recipe for any molecule, won the award in 2022.

In a synergistic loop, the top-level experience young people get helps multinationals increase contributions to society – in Switzerland and overall in Europe. And it prompts more global companies to come to the country and tap into this vast reserve of highly skilled professionals. They come and start to appreciate the great work-life balance the Swiss culture offers – and they stay, in the process, helping to solidify the position of this Alpine country as a powerhouse in attracting multinationals and creating, attracting and retaining individual talents.

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