Twenty years ago, the Swiss watchmaking industry was in the doldrums. Now it is booming and faces a new problem: finding enough skilled staff to meet demand.
Opinion is divided about the labour situation in Switzerland's watchmaking industry. Some believe urgent action is needed to address the shortage of skilled personnel; others say the problem will resolve itself in the years ahead.
What is agreed is that the number of graduates from Switzerland's six watchmaking schools is far from sufficient to cope with demand.
"We need thousands more people, and the training organisations are simply not producing enough," says the Geneva master watchmaker, Franck Muller, whose creations sell for tens of thousands of francs.
Like other Swiss watchmakers, Muller's firm in the village of Genthod has been inundated with orders from both traditional markets and new ones opening up in Asia and Eastern Europe, where the newly rich are seeking ostentatious ways of displaying their wealth.
"We don't have the capacity to meet this demand," says Muller, who is increasingly turning to neighbouring France to plug his staff shortage.
Booming sales and desperation to hold on to staff has been reflected in big pay rises in recent years. Wages have climbed by eight per cent in the past two years, and are expected to rise by up to five per cent in 2001.
Some companies have reacted to the shortage of labour by taking matters into their own hands. The prestigious Geneva watchmaker, Chopard, has set up its own in-house training scheme.
"We consider that the watchmaking schools provide a satisfactory basic training. But we would never allow someone fresh out of school to handle a workshop," says Chopard's Administrative director, François Tissot.
He acknowledges that the schools are not providing enough new watchmakers to satisfy the demands of industry, but feels they should not be put under too much pressure.
"The schools must maintain a good level of training. They must not shorten their training and rush people onto the labour market. It is vital for our industry to have highly-skilled people," Tissot told swissinfo. Unlike Franck Muller, he believes the staffing crisis will be resolved in two to three years.
This clamour for new blood is a far cry from the situation between 1975 and 1985, when, because of economic factors and the quartz revolution, the Swiss watchmaking industry lost two-thirds of its workforce.
"At that time, no young person wanted to take up watchmaking as a career," says François Matile, secretary-general of the Employers' Convention of the Watchmaking Industry.
"Parents would say: 'I don't mind what you do, son, but don't go into watchmaking'. It was seen as a sure fire way of being laid off," he told swissinfo.
Matile recalls that, 10 years ago, the watchmaking school in La Chaux-de-Fonds, where the convention is based, was taking just two or three students a year. Now that figure is between 15 and 18.
"More than ever, young people see watchmaking as an attractive career. Rather than sitting in front of a screen, you are creating something with your own hands," he says.
Nationally, the six schools turn out around 125 newly qualified watchmakers a year, which is enough for the industry's needs. However, of these, as many as 50 will not go into watch making, preferring instead to take up a post in engineering or the retail trade.
"If the figures stay the same for the next 10 years, we will be alright," says Matile.
The positive trend has been confirmed by survey carried out by the employers' convention. Eight years ago it was alarmed to discover that a third of all people working in the industry were aged 55 or over and would retire within 10 years. That figure has now fallen to 20 per cent.
The younger profile of the workforce holds out hope that the future of the industry is now secure, partly thanks to better management practices and automation of more repetitive tasks.
Swiss watchmakers have become much leaner, too. While production and revenue have climbed, the workforce has remained static at around 34,000 for the past 15 years.
Watchmakers enjoyed a boom in 2000, and it looks like there will be more of the same in the first half of 2001. But the industry is bracing itself for difficulties in the latter part of this year and into 2002.
"We are prepared. It will not be like 20 years ago. We are much more professional now," François Tissot says.
The watchmaking industry, especially the quality end, will always be at the mercy of economic forces. But all the sector seems agreed that the redundancies experienced in the 1970s and 1980s are unlikely to be repeated.
"There have always been times when we've have too many watchmakers or not enough. We have worked on this problem for 10 years and I now feel confident that we have found a good ratio between the demands of the industry and what the watch making schools can provide," François Matile says.
by Roy Probert