Blockchain Hub, Switzerland Trying to Fix Staff Shortage

Both students and companies are calling for more blockchain courses at Swiss universities. © Keystone / Christian Beutler

The fast-growing Swiss blockchain industry is facing growing pains. The reason: the lack of qualified personnel to fill the ever-growing job offer. To meet the challenge, universities are mobilizing by offering new courses.

This content was published on April 25, 2022 – 10:21 am

Blockchain is a technology that enables both the storage and transfer of information and transactions. This is possible with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. This digital system is designed to replace traditional depositories such as banks. Decentralized finance promises exchanges without the frictions and fees of brokerage.

On Swiss territory, the number of companies active in the blockchain has increased from 300 in 2017 to about 1,200 this year, with more than 6,000 employees now. Adding to the newly established domestic start-ups is a growing list of foreign companies opening offices in Switzerland, including Fireblocks, BitMEX and FTX Europe.

The city of Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino recently announced ambitious plans to boost the blockchain sector and create more jobs. However, there is a problem: “Blockchain companies need qualified personnel. At the moment, the demand far exceeds the supply,” said Pietro Poretti, Lugano’s economic development director.

Among the companies looking to establish themselves in Lugano is Tether, whose eponymous stablecoin is the most popular in the sector. This cryptocurrency is pegged to the US dollar.

Difficult to fill vacancies

Tether and its subsidiary, the crypto exchange Bitfinex, want to capitalize on the rich Swiss financial expertise, explains Paolo Ardoino, chief technology officer of the two companies.

“We are looking for talented people with expertise in development, customer support, legal compliance and marketing. Tether and Bitfinex have opened a lot of positions lately. We need tens, if not hundreds of people.”

Lugano and Tether try to overcome the staff shortage by teaming up with the city’s three higher education institutions. Up to 500 grants are expected.

Other Swiss universities were also approached. Hence the appearance of a variety of specific courses across the country. According to a survey conducted by blockchain incubator CV VC and accounting firm PwC, 20 Swiss higher education institutions have integrated blockchain into their curriculum.

The University of Basel was one of the first to offer blockchain courses. The first were spread over a semester in 2017. Today, eleven different offers – from bachelor to doctorate – are offered.

They cover a wide range of fields ranging from finance to law and project management, and are currently attended by nearly 500 students. In addition, more than 2,000 people follow two free online basic courses.

From podcast to job offer

Alexander Bechtel, a lecturer at the University of St. Gallen and head of digital assets at Deutsche Bank, landed a top job in the blockchain world. While completing his PhD in monetary theory in St. Gallen in 2019, he started a cryptocurrency podcast called “Bitcoin, Fiat & Rock’n’Roll”.

“The episodes received a lot of attention and became very popular in the German-speaking area. I was recognized as an expert and Deutsche Bank asked me if I could support them in the field of digital assets and blockchain,” says the person concerned.

According to Alexander Bechtel, the competition between banks, Fintech startups and other technology companies is fierce: they all want to attract the best talent. The demand for qualified personnel is great, but it is sorely lacking.

“This sector is very complex and combines cryptography, IT, economics and other subjects,” notes Alexander Bechtel. Few European universities are preparing people for jobs in cryptocurrency. Few people have completed a three-year education. Above all, you have to gain knowledge on the job.”

The University of St. Gallen plans to integrate more blockchain courses in the near future. “Demand from both students and the labor market is high,” notes finance professor Angelo Ranaldo.

Courses allow students to become familiar with the concept of blockchain, but few courses teach them how to apply the theory. “What is the link between the blockchain and the financial markets and what is the market for non-fungible tokens?” Angelo Ranaldo wonders.

The start-up spirit

The University of Zurich has its own blockchain competence center, which conducts research projects with organizations such as the Cardano Foundation and universities in Canada, Japan and India.

Zurich’s alma mater also offers a number of blockchain courses and a Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS), titled “Deep Dive into Blockchain.” Offered online as part of the Summer University, this program attracts students from approximately sixty countries.

These courses encourage students to critically evaluate the hype surrounding blockchain, said Claudia Tessone, president of the Blockchain Center. “It is important that they learn to distinguish between rhetoric and reality, because the quality of information on the Internet is often poor and extremely biased.”

Not all universities delve so deeply into the subject. For example, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) is integrating aspects of blockchain into existing courses.

“Blockchain, as a technical concept, is not very difficult to understand, explains James Larus, Dean of the EPFL School of Computer Science and Communication. Almost every EPFL master’s graduate should have taken enough courses to understand what blockchain is about. They may not be the very latest, but hire one of our graduates and you’ll see that they have plenty of knowledge in the required areas.”

Do young people dream of a career in the volatile world of cryptocurrencies? “A large proportion of the students want to work for a large, stable company and have a long career there. I try to convince them that they have to work in an interesting start-up for that. Some are receptive, some are not,” answers James Larus.

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