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How hard is finding work in Zurich without speaking German?

With a strong and resilient job market, Zurich is a major destination for international workers. But how important is speaking German - and can you get by if you only speak English?

A woman drinks a cup of tea while looking at her laptop
Are you looking for work in Zurich? Here's what you need to know. Photo by Dai KE on Unsplash

Living and working in Zurich offers many draw cards from high salaries, a favourable work-life balance and international working environment.

In addition to the economic power of the city, which contributes an estimated 20 percent of the overall Swiss GDP, Zurich has additional permits available to attract foreign workers. 

‘It’s competitive’: Essential advice for how to find a job in Zurich

But how important is speaking German – or indeed any Swiss language – when working in Zurich? 

Can you get by in Zurich without speaking German? 

The greater Zurich metropolitan area includes an estimated 1.6 million people, making it one of the largest German-speaking cities in the world. 

However, with half of population of the city’s urban area foreign, Zurich has an International feel. 

Indeed, it is not unusual to be asked to order in English at bars, cafes and restaurants in central areas of the city, due to the influx of foreign workers in the hospitality industry. 

Given the prevalence of English and English-speaking workers in the city, it is certainly possible to get by if you only speak English in Zurich. 

In addition to ordering in English, officials such as police officers and administrative staff at the town hall will also speak English or at least be able to direct you to someone who does. 

The same goes for private entities such as insurance companies, as well as utility companies for gas and electricity. 

Many official communications such as those from the cantonal government are also made in English. 

Can you work in Zurich without speaking German? 

Of course, the main element here is what industry you work in. English teachers will find it easier to get by in Zurich without German than emergency room nurses. 

Nikolaus Schönecker, Senior Team Lead at Hays in Zurich specialises in filling permanent roles in the IT sector. 

“The amount of roles not requiring German or Swiss German is increasing, since many companies are realising this is the only way to challenge the shortage of experts,” he says. Nevertheless, having even rudimentary language skills can set you apart from other foreign candidates.

Working remotely from Switzerland: What are the rules for foreigners?

“Show your willingness to learn German. If you aim to be able to follow business meetings in German at a B1 level and reply in English, the barriers will be lower.” 

Stephan Surber, Senior Partner at Page Executive Switzerland, advises job-hunters to connect with the local expat community as well as country-related networking organisations such as the Chambers of Commerce. 

Most of these groups including AmCham, Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Swedish-Swiss Chamber of Commerce also publish a list of its members online, which may be a good guide to finding international firms based in Zurich. 

He also suggests jobseekers to target expert networks such as the CFA or ACCA community for financial analysts and accountants. 

EXPLAINED: Which Swiss cantons have a minimum wage?

There are many English-language job portals on hand such as jobsinzurich.com, LinkedIn and The Local’s own search engine. But experts we spoke to said that recruitment agencies or headhunters could prove useful in finding hidden opportunities that are not yet on the market.

They can also provide feedback on interviews and ask their clients questions that a direct candidate would not usually get to ask. 

And if you eventually find yourself across an interviewer, aim to be modest and genuine. “Although self-confidence can surely help in most jobs, most Swiss people dislike bragging and overstating,” reminds Schönecker. “So try to show your best side in a realistic way.” 

What do the Local’s readers say? 

In January, 2022, The Local asked its readers about finding work in Zurich – with the importance of English a major factor. 

Generally speaking, the reader responses reflect those of the experts – that speaking German can be crucial at times, but is not necessary. 

Two thirds (66.67%) of the 30 respondents told us it was “very important” to speak German/Swiss German to find a job in Zurich. 

Just under a third said it was “beneficial but not necessary” while one respondent said it was “unimportant”. 

Have you found work in Zurich without speaking German? Or have you not? Get in touch with us at [email protected]. 

How do I find an English-speaking job in Switzerland? 

Other than contacting companies and organisations directly, you can go through a recruitment agencies such as Adecco or Manpower. If they find you a job you will not have to pay anything; the employer will be charged for their services.

There are other resources as well where you can do your own search.

First and foremost is The Local’s own search engine where industries are listed by categories.

Other resources include Jobs.ch and Glassdoor.

A more in-depth summary of how to find English-speaking work in Switzerland is available here. 

READ MORE: How to find English language jobs in Switzerland

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For members

QUALITY OF LIFE

Why are Geneva and Zurich high among world’s ‘most liveable’ cities?

Zurich and Geneva have been ranked once again in the top 10 best cities to live in but not everything is so rosy about life in Switzerland's two big cities.

Why are Geneva and Zurich high among world’s ‘most liveable’ cities?

Switzerland is the only country in Europe to have two entries in the top 10 in the new Global Liveability Index: Zurich is in the third place and Geneva in the sixth.

The study, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit rates living conditions in 172 cities based on more than 30 factors. These are grouped into five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. 

Both cities score high across all categories, with highest marks given for heath care (100), followed by infrastructure (96.4), and stability (95).

The difference, though minimal, between the two cities, lies in the culture and environment category, were Zurich scored 96.3 and Geneva 94.9.

The lowest score both got, 91.7, is for education, which is surprising, as Zurich’s Federal Polytechnic Institute (ETH) has been named the best university in continental Europe for several years running, including in 2022.

READ MORE: Swiss universities still highly ranked but slip in ratings

The overall result, however, is not exactly a surprise, because the two cities (and sometimes also Basel, Bern, and Lausanne) frequently rank in the Top 10 places to live in the world.

Paradoxically, Switzerland’s two largest cities also routinely take top spots as the most expensive places to live in. For instance, both were ranked among the costliest for international residents in a survey published on June 14th.

So the obvious question is, how can two most expensive cities also be among most ‘liveable’?

At least part of the answer may lie in different criteria used to measure the quality of life versus costs.

The concept of quality of life defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which was also adapted in Switzerland, includes categories such as  health, education, environmental quality, personal security, civic engagement, and work-life balance.

Swiss cities (and Switzerland in general) scores high in all these categories, which explains the overall top rankings.

The cost of living, on the other hand, is determined by calculating prices of goods and services that are essential parts of individual or household spending.

These prices are totalled and averaged, and indexes are created to help compare costs of living in different locations.

As prices for basic necessities such as housing, health insurance, food, and public transportation, are much higher in Switzerland than in most of Europe, the country always ranks among the most expensive in the world.

However, as The Local explained in a recent article, in order to get a more accurate assessment of the cost of living, prices should be looked at in the context of purchasing power parity (PPP) — that is, the financial ability of a person or a household to buy products and services with their wages.

An in depth analysis by a digital employment platform Glassdoor concluded that in Switzerland (along with Denmark, and Germany) the average city-based worker can afford to buy 60 percent or more goods and services with his or her salary than residents of New York.

READ MORE : EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s cost of living isn’t as high as you think

And there’s more to the equation…

Most, if not all, participants in the global quality / standard of living indexes are international residents in each surveyed country — people who are typically high earners and have sufficient income to live well. That skews the results somewhat.

For instance, the Quality of Living Ranking conducted annually by asset management firm Mercer, bases its findings on responses by expatriate employees — people who work in high-level, well-paid executive positions — rather than those in lower-level jobs, like in retail or restaurant sector.

 READ MORE: What is the average salary for (almost) every job in Switzerland?
 
 

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