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Swiss industry faces record shortage of skilled workers

In the ultra-modern premises of the MPS company in Biel/Bienne, in canton Bern. Copyright | Sébastien Deloy Studio Photo Sppj ©

The Bern-based company MPS Micro Precision Systems urgently needs to hire specialists to maintain growth. Difficulty in recruiting skilled workers is an industry-wide problem, jeopardising sales while demand is at its highest.

“This is where we make the parts for the systems we sell.” In a workshop at MPS Micro Precision Systems, in Biel/Bienne in the canton of Bern, Fabio Mazzu strides over to a large rectangular machine that is running at full speed. “Bars of steel or stainless steel, three metres long each, go in here at the entry end. The segments are then cut out and shaped following a computer-programmed pattern. At the exit end, these nuts with a very sophisticated design come out. Their precision is guaranteed to ten microns, which is the equivalent of a tenth of a hair.”

Mazzu oversees manufacturing in the machining sector. This is a key role in a company known worldwide for the quality of its products and its customised service. The parts produced by MPS are used in a broad range of fields, including aerospace, medical devices, watchmaking and semiconductors. Behind Mazzu, a dozen orange Tornos machines –produced by the historic machine-tool manufacturer from the Bernese Jura – are humming away in the factory hall. “We are short of bar turners above all. These are multi-skilled mechanics specialised in the manufacture of complex metal parts,” he explains.

Their job consists of setting up the programme for the computer numerical control (CNC) machine, after designing the manufacturing process. They must then select the tools to be placed in the machine and fine-tune the settings. MPS has been understaffed for months. As a result, the employees must monitor five to six turning machines instead of just two. “This overload causes stress, of course. We need to support our teams and listen to their concerns in order to avoid problems such as burnout,” Mazzu adds.

Jobs highly specific to the region

The labour shortage in the industry is penalising the competitiveness of Swiss foreign trade, which accounts for around 40% External linkof Swiss GDP – a proportion that makes the country very dependent on this sector. Together, industry and tools (27%) and watchmaking (10%) account for more than a third (37%) of Swiss exports, according to the Federal Statistical OfficeExternal link (2021 figures). This comes in second place to chemicals and pharmaceutical products, traditionally the leading sector for Swiss sales abroad, with almost half the total value of sales.

MPS, with around 475 employees, aims to increase its turnover from CHF75 million ($84 million) in 2022 to CHF85 million in the current financial year. Demand is extremely high, boosted by the rebound effect after the Covid-19 pandemic, generating a sales growth of around 13%. To reach its target on schedule, the company needs to fill some 20 currently vacant positions.

The most sought-after profile is that of multi-skilled mechanics specialised in bar turning, with a Federal Diploma of Vocational Education and Training and several years’ experience. “This kind of profession does not exist anywhere other than in the Swiss and French Jura regions, so there is no point in trying to recruit elsewhere in the European Union. The only way to solve the problem is by training more workers, whether recent school-leavers or people seeking a change of career,” says Nicola Thibaudeau, CEO of MPS.

Nicola Thibaudeau is a mechanical engineering graduate from École Polytechnique de Montréal and has been managing MPS Micro Precision Systems for 20 years. MPS Micro Precision Systems AG

Employers are snapping up specialists

The demand for personnel in the bar-turning sector is at an all-time high, as is clear from the job portal Jobup. This shows that in April 2023, Swiss industry was looking to hire 1,550 multi-skilled mechanics. Competition between employers is intense. “To attract workers, employers must offer development prospects within the company, while also improving framework conditions, for instance offering more flexible working hours and holiday possibilities,” says Thibaudeau.

Benoit Fontaine is the director of Job Watch, a recruitment agency based in Yverdon-les-Bains that specialises in watchmaking and microtechnology. He has not seen such a shortage of staff in the past 15 years in the Jura region, the beating heart of the Swiss high-precision industry. “There are currently nearly 700 open positions, compared to 350 at the same time in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic. The most sought-after professions are found across the part-manufacturing chain, from CNC programmers to machining mechanics,” he explains.

The industry umbrella body Swissmem has published an interview with Alain Kiener, production manager at Bieri HydraulikExternal link, in Liebefeld, in the canton of Bern. Kiener laments that it is nearly impossible today to recruit specialists through the traditional means. “To hire a professional, the whole team has to draw on its personal contacts.” He advocates hiring people who do not fit the profile 100% and training them up. The focus is then placed on their potential for integration and desire to learn. “Having interesting projects to offer and the company’s image as a whole are decisive factors in attracting highly sought-after workers,” sums up Thibaudeau of MPS.

An employee at work on a digitally controlled machine. Copyright | Sébastien Deloy Studio Photo Sppj ©

Boosting the image of careers in industry

But how did this shortage come about? Dominique Lauener, president of the Association of Bar-Turning and Cutting Manufacturers, has an answer. “It is simple. Companies have not trained enough specialists over the past ten years. Taking on apprentices requires effort on the part of employers, and while some companies are fully committed to doing this, others prefer to spare themselves the effort. As a result, the skills pool dries up as soon as demand increases.”

Lauener, who hails from Neuchâtel, was the driving force behind the establishment, in 2013, of a specialised training centre for the Jura region (known as the Centre d’apprentissage technique de l’arc jurassien, or CAAJ). This centre, which has premises in Moutier, in the canton of Bern, and in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the canton of Neuchâtel, offers a dual apprenticeship programme for the bar-turning and mechanical trades. The region’s manufacturers are unanimous in their support for the centre. 

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Swissmem, meanwhile, is calling on the sector to improve the image of careers in industry. The umbrella association has launched two platforms – Fascination techniqueExternal link and “find-your-futureExternal link” – to promote the sector and support training. The industry is seeking to send a special message to girls, who are very under-represented in the sector, stressing that oily workbenches have now given way to fully computerised systems.

For Thibaudeau of MPS, these efforts are all grist to the mill. An aeronautical engineer by training, she is convinced that the ball is now in the industry’s court and, contrary to popular belief, she is not asking for anything from the public authorities. “It is up to us, the companies, to solve the problem. We must work together to burnish the image of technical professions and boost training opportunities.”

Edited by Samuel Jaberg. Translated from French by Julia Bassam.

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