The Swiss watchmaking industry has been training more and more people, boosted by record exports last year.
Many youngsters, but also plenty of adults wanting to switch jobs, have taken an interest in careers that had lost much of their allure when the watch industry went downhill in the 1970s.
“An oscillating movement is like a beating heart,” said Isabelle Musitelli. At age 38, she’s learning to become a watchmaker, a profession she chose after a visit to the watch museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 2007.
“I’m attracted by the tradition, the know-how, the precision,” she added. “What I like best is putting together the movement and bringing it to life.”
Musitelli, who is spending six years in evening classes to reach her goal, is currently unemployed and hopes her diploma will her find a stable position. Since she left school at age 15, she has worked in a number of small jobs, mainly in retail sales, and more recently as an industrial quality controller.
Responsible for all the courses at the Tramelan interregional training centre in canton Bern, André Mazzarini has noticed a strong interest for all the classes linked to watchmaking. While they attract a wide variety of people, he says there are some recognisable trends.
“When it comes to women, they usually don’t have any kind of qualification, and work in the retail, hospitality or healthcare sectors,” he pointed out. “They are looking for a better paid job with more regular hours.”
“The men looking at making a career switch often already have a technical background,” he added.
At the Biel technical college, the classes are full too. Whereas a few years ago, there were few students lining up for courses, today there is an assessment test to see who will get one of the 12 available places.
“If we could find more teachers, we could increase the number of students,” said course head Daniel Dietz. “But the people who could fill that role get better salaries working in the industry.”
René Maillat, who teaches third-year students, remembers that a few years ago watchmaking had a bad reputation.
“In 1988, I was the only apprentice watchmaker attending classes at the Porrentruy technical college,” he told swissinfo.ch. “Without me, they would have closed the course.”
When cheap quartz watches became a runaway success in the 1970s, the Swiss industry shed many jobs and a lot of watchmakers left their workbenches to become janitors, police officers or customs staff.
Watchmaking has since turned around. “The recovery began 20 years ago, when mechanical watches became fashionable again,” pointed out Romain Galeuchet of the watchmaking employers association.
“We have seen a steady increase in the number of apprentices for some years now. The 2008-2008 financial crisis slowed it down a little, but not significantly.”
Some professions, such as micromechanic (who put together the smallest pieces of watches), still aren’t attracting much interest. However Emmanuel Vuille, director of Greubel Forsey, says the situation is improving for all watchmaking professions despite some recruitment difficulties.
“Working in the sector has become prestigious, and the professions enjoy higher regard than bankers or teachers,” he told swissinfo.ch.
However, the new value given to the watchmaking sector is more social than financial. Only extremely qualified professionals can demand higher salaries, while for most people the first salary after completing an apprenticeship is between SFr3,500 and SFr4,000 ($3,810 and $4,354).
“The watchmaking industry is not particularly generous, but the social benefits of the major groups are attractive,” said Jean-Marc Matthey, who trains apprentices in Biel. “What young people are interested in are the possibilities of being promoted within their profession, opportunities to move abroad and to work with prestigious products.”
René Maillat’s students tend to agree. Besides a love of work well done and a taste for precision, the future watchmakers also chose their profession because it allows them to touch on luxury and glamour.
“It’s a matter of pride to know that some celebrities wear Swiss watches,” said Tiffany Nobs.
Thomas Paley would not mind working for Jaeger LeCoultre or Breguet. “They make reliable and precise products with a beautiful design,” he said. “It’s a good image of Switzerland.”
Görgün Selim is more frank. “Before I started my apprenticeship, I didn’t really care what was inside a watch,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I was only interested in the aesthetics and luxury.”
Not everyone is focused on appearances. Isabelle Musitelli doesn’t care if the watches she makes one day will be worn by George Cooney or Michael Schumacher.
In the factories of the Jura mountains, bling is not part of the landscape. The workers deal more often with iron filings than glitter, and the heritage of the French Protestants who moved there in the 17th century is still present.
“The watchmaking culture is still very much part of the companies here,” explains Mazzarini. “Discretion, sobriety and rigour are almost as important as dexterity and other technical aptitudes.”
Tradition is anchored in the training, which has hardly evolved over the past century. During an apprentice’s first year, all the filing, drilling and metal-turning is done by hand.
If the future watchmakers shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job, observers remain wary. The crises that struck the industry in the 1930s and 1970s weren’t just a challenge to the watchmakers’ know-how, but also a personal one, meaning today they won’t let themselves get carried away.
“The worry hasn’t totally vanished; people are still on their guard,” said Galeuchet.
There is no desire either to train vast numbers of watchmakers or introduce less demanding standards.
“It would be suicidal,” Mattey told swissinfo.ch. “The Chinese are already making high-quality components. To survive, we need to keep a highly qualified workforce.”
An opinion shared by Vuille. “Mechanical watches will not fall out of fashion, but if we attempt to grow too much, it could lead to a loss of quality.”
In 2011, 425 students enrolled in the country’s watchmaking schools, nine per cent more than the previous year. Three hundred and thirty apprentices completed their courses, twice as much as a decade earlier.
More than 35 per cent of students choose to work for a company and enroll in a school.
Back in 1870, the industry began to finance technical colleges, which is why schools have traditionally trained more watchmakers than companies.
The schools also provide certificate courses for students who cannot become watchmakers but can work for the watchmaking industry in other positions.end of infobox
The Swiss watchmaking industry is the third-biggest export sector after machinery and chemistry. Companies are mostly implanted in cantons Neuchâtel, Bern, Geneva, Solothurn, Jura and Vaud.
The industry reached its peak at the end of the 1960s, with nearly 90,000 employees working for 1,500 companies.
At the beginning of the 1970s, competition from Asian quartz watches threw the market into disarray and plunged Swiss watchmaking into its biggest crisis.
By the mid-1980s, the 500 to 600 remaining companies employed 30,000 people.
The industry was able to get back on its feet in two stages. First thanks to the mass production of models such as the Swatch, and later thanks to growing demand for luxury models.
In 2000, there 37,000 people working for 575 companies. In 2008, there were 53,300 workers. However the following year, 4,000 jobs were slashed because of the financial crisis.end of infobox
(Adapted from French by Scott Capper), swissinfo.ch