The News Journal featured this story on the front page on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, the day New Castle County hosted the dedication of a building it is leasing to the nonprofit Veterans Watchmaker Initiative to teach veterans the in-demand skill of watchmaking and repair. County Executive Thomas P. Gordon said at the dedication -- attended by more than 100 guests -- that the county has been behind the effort 110 percent, praising the beneficial use of the county's long-vacant former paramedic station in Odessa.More information about the program, including how to make tax-deductible donations, is available at www.veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org.
INNOVATE DELAWARETime has come for Veterans Watchmaker Initiative
Scott Goss, The News Journal
Repairing a high-end mechanical watch can take hours of painstaking work.But that’s nothing compared to the time and effort Sam Cannan has put into opening the nation's only school dedicated to teaching the watchmaking trade to veterans – especially those with disabilities – for free.“This has been six years in the making,” the Swiss-trained master watchmaker said. “Now we’re finally here. This is actually going to happen.”After numerous false starts, the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative this summer moved closer than ever to fulfilling Cannan’s dream by signing a 10-year lease for a county-owned building near downtown Odessa. A public dedication ceremony for the new site will held 2 p.m. Monday. [Nov. 7]The nonprofit expects to open its school in January – enough time to convert the former paramedic station off U.S. 13 into a training center for veterans pursuing careers in a high-demand field.That’s right, mechanical watches are a booming industry in 2016 – even at a time when just about every mobile phone, computer, car and household appliance carries a digital clock.“That’s exactly why watches – especially the high-end, luxury models – are so popular,” said Jordan Ficklin, executive director of the Ohio-based American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute.“People are craving something durable in today’s disposable economy,” the 37-year-old said. “Mechanical watches have artistry and craftsmanship, and when you wind them, it creates a connection.”That might be an industry sales pitch, but it’s proven to be effective. Each year, more than 1.2 billion wrist watches are sold around the world with the market leaders – Rolex and Swatch/Omega – accounting for a combined $13 billion in annual sales.The average export price of a Swiss watch – the crème de la crème of wearable timepieces – has doubled to $750 since 2000 – just one example of the growing worldwide demand.Yet the number of trained watchmakers who can fix those top-dollar timepieces is practically nonexistent.The arrival of quartz and digital watches in the 1970s virtually eliminated the industry as a viable source of jobs in the minds of most Americans. Today, only about 4,000 watchmakers are left in the U.S., the vast majority of whom are rapidly approaching retirement age.A handful of schools – most run by watch companies – are training technicians to replace the old guard. But together, they produce fewer than 100 graduates a year.“There’s no such thing as an unemployed watchmaker these days,” Ficklin said. “Right out of school, you can start your career making $40,000 to $50,000 and that increases to $70,000 or $80,000 after five or 10 years.”Cannan, a retired Baltimore police officer with a lifelong passion for tiny machinery, is convinced the profession is ideally suited for veterans with disabilities.“They’re already highly specialized and highly professional,” he said. “But when you lose a limb or are badly disfigured, you lose the identity you had before. Superman is now in a wheelchair. What do you do with that? This answers that question.”The process of diagnosing and fixing a fine timepiece is so absorbing that it can take the watchmaker's mind off the outside world, he said, and hopefully, begin to repair the emotional toll of warfare.“Watches are living things,” he said. “They have little hearts that beat. It’s a very intimate relationship, and it’s only you and that watch in that world.”Cannan’s concept for the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative is essentially a recreation of a model pioneered by the Bulova Watch Co. after World War II.Over five decades, the company’s New York school trained hundreds of injured veterans in watchmaking, becoming an advocate for all people with disabilities before finally closing in the early 1990s.The idea convinced Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County to donate 35 pounds of broken watches. George Washington University has chipped in furniture. An anonymous watch company has donated watchmaking tools. And the former Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9962 in Dover agreed to donate $50,000, among many other gifts from groups around the country."We think this is wonderful," said Dave Skocik, president of the Delaware Veterans Coalition. "Vets will be able to come in, not pay a cent and get a whole new lease on life."That support did little to make the path any easier for the initiative, an effort that has faced all the moving parts of a fine timepiece without any of the precision.“Most people don’t understand the industry and are generally very skeptical,” Cannan said. “To make this work, we also needed space for little or no money. That’s an impossible task when you’re a new charity with nothing to show people.”After failing to find adequate space in Dover, a 2014 proposal to use a former elementary school failed to get a vote before Kenton Town Council.An article in The News Journal about the stalled effort grabbed the attention of Richard and Geri Money of Middletown, who donated four acres of commercially zoned farmland off U.S. 301 last year. More than 300 veterans signed up for the school’s waiting list, but complications over getting water and electric service to the site stalled the effort.“Middletown has been very welcoming and getting there is still our ultimate goal,” Cannan said. “But we needed to get the school going while we continue raising money."That’s when he and Vietnam veteran Rick Hofmann, a retired Delmarva Power spokesman with an artificial leg, found the vacant Odessa property.Built in the 1960s, the building long housed a county paramedic station but most recently served as the home of American Legion Post 25.The veterans’ group vacated the property in 2014 when the county was looking to build a new paramedic station on the site. For a variety of reasons, that plan was abandoned and both the paramedics and the American Legion are now located at New Castle County Police Department’s Southern Patrol building off North Broad Street.“God bless them, the county stepped up and agreed to let us use the property,” Cannan said. “And at $1 a year, the price was right.”New Castle County Executive Thomas P. Gordon said his administration is honored to help solve the location problem for the school “so it can get started providing training and good jobs for those who sacrificed the most serving our country.”To start, the new school will train 10 veterans with service-related disabilities in a 16-month master watchmaking course. Another 10 will be enrolled in a 10-week watch repair class.Both programs will be free for veterans and not use any of their benefits. The school’s instructors will be made up entirely of volunteers.“Finding teachers willing to do this for free will not be a problem,” Cannan said. “Every watchmaker wants to pass this knowledge on to the next generation.”Contact business reporter Scott Goss at (302) 324-2281, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottGossDel.