Over the past twenty years, the mechanical watch has enjoyed unprecedented success. While this has put the Swiss watch industry in a highly desirable position, the speed and extent of this success have taken many a brand by surprise. Since the crisis triggered by the advent of the quartz watch in the 1970s, training new watchmakers was no longer a priority. Worse still, the branch shed 60,000 jobs in a single decade, including many watchmakers. Now the industry is seeking staff with the same urgency as jobs were cut back then. They are needed to make the highly complex mechanical movements that are so much in demand these days. But production is only one side of the coin: the other equally important side is to run an efficient after-sales service. Since the start of the mechanical boom, quantities of mechanical watches have been sold worldwide and some of these are equipped with complicated mechanisms. Sooner or later they will make their way back to the manufacturer to be serviced. Which is when brands that don’t have enough qualified staff will face trouble.
IWC in Schaffhausen is among the brands to have long foreseen this issue. They have never stopped training watchmakers and all the other related professions. Their future watchmakers even have a fully-equipped workshop with room for twenty-four apprentices, five for each year of the apprenticeship. Other apprentices in construction, polymechanics, electro-plating, surface treatments, IT and commerce are trained “on the job”, alongside the professionals.
The positive effect of recruiting from this area is that our staff are very loyal to IWC, because they have family and friends close at hand.
“A special responsibility to keep our expertise”
“Being almost the only watch brand in this corner of Switzerland, we feel a special responsibility to keep our expertise in the area,” says Markus Kaufmann, who recently took over from Walter Baumann as training manager. Of the 46 years that Baumann spent with IWC, 40 were dedicated to teaching. Kaufmann, who is only 30 years old, was one of his apprentices. “The positive effect of recruiting from this area is that our staff are very loyal to IWC, because they have family and friends close at hand,” Kaufmann goes on to explain. Whereas in the 1980s nobody dreamed of becoming a watchmaker, the profession now benefits from the newly-gained prestige of the timepieces themselves. Watchmaking has become a desirable profession. “Every year, more than 100 young people apply for an apprenticeship,” explains Markus Kaufmann. “We had to find a way to select the best while remaining objective.”
First of all, applicants are invited to an information event showing them not only the attractions but also the difficulties of the watchmaker’s job. “At this early stage, some of the young people realise they might not have the patience needed for the job, which saves them and us a lot of time and trouble.” Fifty to sixty youngsters, all of whom must have an excellent school record, are then invited to sit a test which further establishes who fits the bill to become a watchmaker. Those who pass are invited to a one-week course during which they are finally allowed to touch watch movements. “This leaves us with five young people who actually have what it takes to begin an apprenticeship.”
We ask our students to work on watches that really do need repairing from an early stage in their training.
Students must learn to make their own tools
The watchmaker’s apprenticeship lasts for four years, during which the young men and women train not only in the workshops but also in a vocational school. “Our trainees go to the watchmaking school in Grenchen, which is the only German-speaking institute in Switzerland,” says Markus Kaufmann. Here they study not just watchmaking theory but other subjects too, such as languages, maths and physics, that can help them in their future profession. Throughout their training, students are expected to keep a work diary that records their weekly progress in their own words and drawings. Filling its pages neatly not only helps produce a good result, it also provides them with a reference work for the future. Method and attention to detail are prerequisites for the watchmaker’s art.
“We consider it important to give our apprentices meaningful tasks right from the beginning,” comments Markus Kaufmann as we visit the workshop, which is buzzing with silent activity. “We ask our students to work on watches that really do need repairing from an early stage in their training.” At first they are asked to bring along old clocks and alarm clocks from home, objects with little value where they can afford to make mistakes. It isn’t long, however, before they are performing simple repairs on watches. Students must even learn to make their own tools, such as tweezers and screwdrivers.
Working alongside trained professionals gives all the other young trainees at IWC a sense of responsibility at an early age. The young constructor, for example, is sitting next to the people who are developing the brand’s future mechanisms. In fact one of the first things they learn is to keep their brand’s secrets… secret!