Hub Blockchain, Switzerland is trying to overcome staff shortages

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

The rapidly expanding Swiss blockchain industry is facing increasing difficulties. The reason: the lack of qualified personnel to fill the ever-increasing job offer. To face the challenge, universities are mobilizing to offer new courses.

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

Blockchain is a technology that allows the storage as well as the transmission of information and transactions. This can be done with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. This digital system is designed to replace traditional custodians such as banks. Decentralized finance promises exchanges without the friction and fees of intermediation.

On Swiss territory, the number of companies active on blockchain has risen from 300 in 2017 to around 1,200 this year, now employing more than 6,000 people. Added to the newly created domestic start-ups is a growing list of foreign companies opening an office 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. Currently, demand far exceeds supply,” says Pietro Poretti, director of economic development for Lugano.

Among the companies looking to set up shop in Lugano is Tether, whose eponymous stablecoin is the most popular in the industry. This cryptocurrency is pegged to the US dollar.

Difficult to fill positions

Tether and its subsidiary, crypto exchange Bitfinex, want to tap into the wealth of Swiss financial expertise, says Paolo Ardoino, CTO of the two companies.

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

Lugano and Tether try to overcome staff shortages by collaborating with the city’s three higher education establishments. Up to 500 scholarships are expected to be awarded.

Other Swiss universities were also approached. Hence the emergence of a variety of specific courses across the country. According to a survey conducted by blockchain incubator CV VC and audit 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 ones were distributed over a semester, in 2017. Today, eleven different offers are offered – from baccalaureate to doctorate.

Covering a wide range of areas from finance to law and project management, they are currently followed by around 500 students. In addition, more than 2,000 people are enrolled in two free online core courses.

From podcast to job offer

Alexander Bechtel, professor at the University of St. Gallen and head of digital assets at Deutsche Bank, knew how to get a big job in the blockchain world. Upon completing his doctorate in monetary theory at 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 area of ​​digital assets and blockchain,” says the person in question.

According to Alexander Bechtel, 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 strong, but very lacking.

“This sector is very complex, combining cryptography, IT, economics and other subjects, notes Alexander Bechtel. Few European universities prepare people for cryptocurrency jobs. Few people have completed a three-year course. Above all, you have to acquire knowledge on the job.”

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

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

The startup 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.

The Zurich alma mater also offers several blockchain courses and a Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS) entitled “Deep Dive into Blockchain”. Delivered online as part of the summer university, this program attracts students from over sixty countries.

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

Not all universities delve into the subject. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), for example, 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 all EPFL Masters graduates must have taken enough courses to understand what blockchain is. They may not be cutting edge, but hire any of our graduates and you will find that they have sufficient knowledge in the required areas.”

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

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