The Apprentice’s Journey
It begins with a simple pair of scissors, blunt and practically unusable. The apprentice picks them up carefully, examines the blades and holds them to the whetstone. He’s just at the start of his training, but his movements are confident and assured as he sharpens each blade in turn.
There’s a lot of expectation riding on his young shoulders. Although we accept six multi-skilled mechanics every year as apprentices at Victorinox, Fabien is our first apprentice cutler in 50 years.
Why the wait? “It’s a question of mechanization” says Toni Blaser, who oversees all of our apprentices. “As we introduced more and more machines into our production, we began to see less need for skilled cutlers. But in recent years, we’ve come to understand that not only would a trained cutler be useful for the production of special knives or prototypes, but that also we, as the biggest knife manufacturer in Switzerland, need to play our part in furthering this venerable craft”.
One of the highlights of his second year so far has been the week-long smithy course which he did at the blacksmiths run by Hansjörg Kilchenmann in Basel. Here the apprentices learn how to forge a knife from raw parts, using a template to file and shape the steel. Both the raw steel and the templates are donated by Victorinox, and by the end of the course, the apprentices have learnt how to make their own farmer’s knife, from blades to scales. By early 2019, Fabien will have his own smithy at our factory in Ibach, so that he can practice and further hone his skills.
He still has many other things to look forward to – the remaining years of his program include time spent training in a variety of departments – not only the different stages of production and manufacturing, but also in the warehouse or in customer service. “For me, this is one of the benefits of doing an apprenticeship at a company like Victorinox” affirms Fabien. “A smaller company could not offer such a varied and diverse experience”.
So far his journey has been rewarding, but not without its hurdles: “I really enjoy working with my hands, but sometimes school can be a challenge” he grins. In addition to his hands-on training, Fabien also has to attend classes along with the multi-skilled mechanics one day a week, so that he has the theory to back-up his practical experience. The specifics of the cutler craft he will go on to learn at the Elsener Messerschmied in Rapperswil. “We have pretty exacting quality requirements, both of the products he crafts and of him as a student and apprentice. It’s important to set boundaries and let him know what we expect of him,” says Toni. Fabien agrees: “Mr Blaser can at times be critical, but I always appreciate knowing where I have to improve”.
Toni explains that the Victorinox philosophy is “fordern durch fördern”, loosely translated as obtaining maximum performance through strong support and encouragement of the apprentices. He looks on proudly as Fabien explains that his long-term plan is to stay on at Victorinox, where he can gain the necessary years of experience, before going on to study for the esteemed “Master Cutler” title. It’s clear that both apprentice and his superior are both very invested in Fabien’s success, as they joke together and try to second-guess the surprise task in the challenging final exam, which will determine if Fabien passes or fails his apprenticeship. “The average apprentice costs Victorinox approximately CHF130,000” says Toni. “But of course it’s an investment in the future and one we are more than happy to make.”
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