Improving integration of refugees into the workforce

Despite being a valuable potential workforce for businesses, refugees often struggle to integrate into the professional world. Yet, a considerable portion of this population possesses solid educational backgrounds.

Eine Landkarte der Schweiz aus Porträts von Menschen unterschiedlicher Nationalitäten

The Swiss economy still grapples with a considerable labor shortage. Recent reports from the Federal Statistical Office (OFS) reveal that businesses declared a total of 126,000 job vacancies in the first quarter of 2023, reflecting a 5.9% annual increase. economiesuisse anticipates this trend to continue, projecting a potential shortage of 430,000 workers in Switzerland by 2040.

In light of this situation, refugees are seen as invaluable assets. Indeed, 30,223 individuals sought asylum in Switzerland last year, (+23.3% from the previous year). However, despite those holding B, F, and S permits having unrestricted access to the job market (see below), less than half of them are currently employed.

"People seeking refuge encounter three primary challenges," explains Eliane Engeler, spokesperson for the Swiss Refugee Aid Organization. "Firstly, they often lack prior knowledge of the national languages. Additionally, the ‘temporary nature’ of the F permit can deter employers, even though most individuals ultimately remain in Switzerland long-term. Similarly, the limited duration and conditional nature of the S protection status may discourage hiring. Lastly, professional experiences gained in their countries of origin often cannot be certified due to a lack of supporting documentation." As of the end of 2023, Switzerland had admitted 45,346 individuals on a provisional basis, in addition to 66,083 individuals benefiting from provisional protection (S permits), according to data from the State Secretariat for Migration.

Yet, a significant portion of this population is well-educated. Among refugees granted S protection status who arrived between March and June 2022, primarily from Ukraine, nearly 70% of them hold tertiary-level qualifications, with 94.5% possessing post-compulsory education diplomas, according to data from the Confederation. Moreover, around 40% of these individuals have proficient English language skills.

Success factors

"Businesses considering the hiring of refugees should understand that this process demands a certain level of willingness, risk-taking, and support," explains Eric Davoine, Professor of Human Resources and Organization at the University of Fribourg, and director of several studies on refugee integration in the labor market.

The expert suggests that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may find it advantageous to initially focus on hiring through short-term internships, provided there is a real possibility of long-term employment behind such an offer. "In such cases," he explains, "it's possible to evaluate the new employee for one to two weeks, with an internal staff member acting as their mentor."

This approach enables the swift identification of any lacking skills and offers essential guidance. "At the conclusion of the trial period," he adds, "it's crucial to compile a form detailing all activities undertaken, along with qualitative examples of what worked and what didn't, akin to practices observed in apprenticeship contracts. Such documentation proves invaluable, serving not only as a tool for the company to assess the potential of future hires but also aiding refugees in advancing their professional integration."

Room for improvement

In a recent report, the Federal Council indicates its goal to reach a 40% employment rate for individuals holding an S permit by the end of 2024 (up from 20% at the end of November 2023). There is indeed considerable room for improvement, particularly concerning refugee women and those who have arrived in Switzerland through family reunification. To harness this potential, authorities are focusing on "new targeted measures and improved support within existing frameworks."

One of the existing measures is the Integration Pre-Apprenticeship Program (PAI), which prepares participants for regular apprenticeships. Furthermore, a pilot program offers financial aid to employers, providing subsidies for wage costs during a specified period when hiring refugees or those provisionally admitted who require special training.


On the theme

Statuses and employability

Swiss law makes a distinction between individuals whose asylum process is ongoing (asylum seekers, N permits) and those who have been granted permission to remain in Switzerland (recognized refugees, refugees granted provisional admission, and individuals admitted on a provisional basis, B and F permits). Additionally, there are individuals under protection, holding an S permit (such as those who have fled Ukraine). Holders of B, F, and S permits are allowed to engage in gainful employment. However, S permits require cantonal authorization. The online platform enables businesses to declare gainful activities falling under foreigner law simply and efficiently, and to keep track of applications and their processing (please note that the availability of the service may vary by canton).

Last modification 01.05.2024

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