The US job market has been in the doldrums for more than 2 years. But in some parts of the economy the demand for workers has been, well, ticking up. People who can repair high-end mechanical watches are in short supply and demand is soaring. Graduates of a watchmaking program in Minnesota find their progress from school to work is moving like clockwork.
Joe Juaire pulls open a file drawer to reveal a haphazard collection of plastic bags, box tops, and a metal bowl. They all contain several watches in various stages of disassembly. "This is where we find most of our parts here, in the junk watches or unrepairable watches," he says.
Mr. Juaire is the watchmaking instructor at St. Paul College, home of the nation's oldest watchmaking school. "And we're one of the few that are left. There are ten that are left in the states. We had 22 schools in 1992," he says.
With the introduction of reliable and inexpensive quartz watches in the 1970's the need for people to repair traditional spring-driven mechanical watches dropped, and the schools began to close. Many who remain in the profession are nearing retirement. But there is still work to be done. The demand for high-end mechanical watches is rising. Imports of these expensive timepieces reached nearly 10 million in the 1990s, more than double the prior decade.
Joe Juaire estimates that dozens of job openings await his graduating class of ten. "We're seeing requests for employees in the neighborhood of fifty for every graduate that I have, or 50 placement offers. And they're not all of them local. Some of them in fact are international. But this is a worldwide shortage," he says.
According to James Lubic of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, demand for watchmakers may be at an all time high in the United States. "The fallacy about the profession was that you couldn't make a living or you can't make a living doing this. And there's nothing further from the truth now. It's more lucrative than it's ever been," he says. "Students are starting in the $35,000 a year range, some have even gone to work for various Swiss watch brands in New York and started in the $50,000 range."
"When you graduate from this program, the world really is your oyster," says recent St. Paul graduate Geoff Colber. He got lots of job interviews, and chose to use his skills building missile guidance systems in Florida. His first year salary and signing bonus put his wages well above the United States average. While there for the job interview, Mr. Colber says a couple of other companies wanted to give him work on the spot. "I just said, 'Hey I'm a watchmaker and I fix watches,' and I had these guys just about jump out of their seats going, 'Oh boy, you've got to get me your number, I have to get in touch with you because I've got people in here that need watches fixed all the time.' I was dirty, I was sunburned, I'd been at the beach, you know, probably had a few beers," he says.
So can anybody become a watchmaker? Consider this. "This is the balance wheel, this is essentially the heart and brain of the watch," says Jamie Mathison. Across the aisle, Mr. Mathison has removed the balance wheel from the movement to screw on timing washers. Each washer is a metal donut no bigger than two ridges of his fingerprint. He puts on two. He needs to slow the watch by just 3 minutes a day. "Who would want to go to all that effort? Honestly, what's the point of that? Just to get a watch to run on time. But I love it," he says.
Mr. Mathison came to St. Paul College with a degree in English literature, a minor in Norwegian language, and dwindling satisfaction from his job as a cabinetmaker. He still likes working with his hands, and is fascinated with watches. He says he finds deep satisfaction in the precision and craft required to repair a fine watch. "We've got a little tool here for polishing screw heads. If you've got a screw head on a high-grade watch, and it gets scarred up, you polish it, you know, so that it's nice and perfectly mirror finished. And, you know, nobody's going to see that but the other watchmakers that work on it," he says.
Geoff Colber says his job working on Trident missiles in Florida will be different than working on watches. There are lots more parts. A missile costs lots more than even a Rolex. And then there's the question of responsibility. "If you goof up on a watch, and it's a historically important watch, you've done something damaging to history. You goof up on one of these missiles, and you may blow up California," he says.
Mr. Colber says, in time, he'll probably return to working with watches. And with a well-paying career ahead of him, he considers his months at St. Paul's watchmaking school, time well spent.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Public Radio