Time is on their side: Program trains disabled veterans to be watchmakers

Pictured at September’s ceremonial opening of the Veterans Watchmakers Initiatitve in Odessa are, from left, students Giancarlo LaRusso, Lynn Gipson and Jonathan Dunn, instructor Rick Aubin, instructor and founder Sam Cannan, students Jim Gardner and Don Morton. (Submitted photo/Pauline Cannan)

ODESSA — So far, mostly so good for the first class.

Five of the six students in the Veterans Watchmaking Initiative completed their initial six weeks of training Friday, qualifying them for a 16-month program to follow.

Learning the skill in a former EMT building in southern New Castle County, the veterans aim to eventually enter into what organizers described as a “lucrative, understaffed profession.”

There’s a shortage of watchmakers in the world, evidenced by a bulletin board with job listings that founder Sam Cannan has posted. Starting salaries begin at $50,000 annually and employers are based nationally and internationally.

To become an expert watchmaker 1,840 hours of mechanical training is required. Mr. Cannan, a Dover resident and Swiss-trained master watchmaker, has spent the past five years developing the program for disabled veterans to join at no cost.

“Disabled veterans, whose unemployment rate is 82 percent, will be housed, fed and trained at no cost to them,” Mr. Cannan said. “We are going to put time on their side.”

All but one of the trainees come from Delaware. The other is from Binghamton, New York, and is staying at a Victory Village residence in Dover.

“They’re thrilled to be a part of it, frankly,” Mr. Cannan said Tuesday. “Some of them arrived to us extremely introverted and they came to class not sure what to expect.

“They are all now fully engaged and into it full bore.”

The arrival was a long time coming as Mr. Cannan searched far and wide for a location and backing to begin the program, struggling along the way. Eventually, New Castle County and former Executive Tom Gordon provided space in Odessa for a $1 annual lease. The building was previously slated for demolition.

Eventually, the goal is to provide training for 25 veterans at a time from throughout the country. Mr. Cannan is currently seeking funds to rehabilitate part of the current building to add space for 10 more students.

The program is similar to the Joseph Bulova Watch Company’s training for disabled veterans that eventually waned in the 1980s due to the trend toward electronic watches.

Among the believers are once skeptical Delaware Veterans Coalition co-founders Dave Skocik and Paul Davis. Mr. Skocik, who emceed an opening ceremony in September, was unsure the project could succeed.

“Paul and I thought he might have a missing gear, but after listening to him we understood his mainspring was intact,” Mr. Skocik recalled at the gathering. “We agreed his goal was admirable but maybe not really doable.

“One driven man could not replicate what a large corporation did so many years ago. Once he discovered the physical hurdles involved, to say nothing of setting up a training facility that would comport with traditional educational requirements, he would see the errors of his ways. He kept talking about it to us, the community at large, and actually anyone who would listen.

“And he wouldn’t stop.”

There’s currently a waiting list for potential watchmaking prospects, Mr. Cannan said.

“Many more want to be involved but there simply isn’t room in the building,” he said, noting that a grant application has been made and there’s hope to add more work space by February.

The nonprofit 501c3 venture continues to seek tax deductible donations and envisions a $3 million facility in nearby Middletown when funds are raised.

More information is online at www.veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org, a recently created Facebook page or by calling 465-2421.

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