Machine industry gets a Swiss buzz

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Hans-Peter Widmer (right) instructs Vietnamese youth at the machine operation workshop he and his wife founded in Dong Nai Province. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

A Swiss couple who came to Vietnam several years ago to deliver machinery have been returning every year to train people in machine operation and other vocations.

Hans-Peter Widmer and his wife Iris set up a workshop in 2010 in the southern province of Dong Nai and installed tools and machines to teach local youths and instruct trainers.

They realized the country's machinery industry was underdeveloped when they came here in 1997 on behalf of a Swiss company for the delivery.

Their workshop at the Southeast Area Mechanics and Electricity Secondary School, eight kilometers from the provincial capital churns out trainees who can work in all kinds of manufacturing industries.

The couple used to run the largest CNC (Computer Numerical Control) lathes manufacturing plant in Switzerland until 2002.

They were also involved with charity, helping underprivileged people and providing jobs to people with AIDS and drug addicts, "helping them get away from their problems, almost always successfully," Widmer told Vietweek by email.

They traveled to many countries and provided relief supplies to disadvantaged people, "but we also found that a good education is worth more than just relief supplies."

At a certain point they decided to help people by giving them a good education "so that then they can build a better life themselves."

Widmer said their three children, a daughter, 29, and two sons, 26 and 24, learned machine operation from them.

"We know of no one in Switzerland who has trained all their three children in their own company"¦ Especially since it is not easy to train [one's] own children because often, especially in Europe, respect is impossible," he said proudly.

He said their many family trips to more than 40 countries possibly helped.

The couple also run a workshop for training trainers in machine operation in Switzerland besides one in Angola.

They travel to Vietnam several times a year, and Widmer said it does not affect family life at all since their children Caroline, Jim, and Sven support them.

"Our children find what we are doing in Vietnam beautiful."

The children too were in Vietnam to help in the beginning.

Iris mainly takes care of office work at the vocational program in Dong Nai, while the 58-year-old is the trainer.

He told Dong Nai Television in an interview that Vietnamese technicians are good but do not have a chance to get practice or get regular access to new technologies.

He noticed how confused the students and their Vietnamese teachers were with the technologies he brought during the early days.

So around 75 percent of class time is earmarked for hands-on training.

He said the classes are based on Swiss vocational schools.

Called polypraktiker (Swiss for automatic technician), it includes 33 percent electrical and 67 percent mechanical training.

"Our trainees learn everything they need," he said, listing turning, milling, drilling, welding, sheet metal work, paint, wiring, PLC programming, and other courses.

Lessons also include discipline for industrial work being on time, wearing protective gear and complying with safety regulations, and keeping tools clean and in the right place.

Students are also taught English, and many of them can learn directly from him instead of through an interpreter, though Widmer said they work with a lot of visual training aids like photos and drawings.

The school supports him by providing three Vietnamese teachers and 1,000 square meters of classrooms.

But the couple have brought all the machines and tools worth nearly US$400,000.

They run two associations in Switzerland called KFKOK (Children, Children Without War) International and WIAP International through which they raise funds. Widmer's training contracts at home and in Africa have also helped buy machines and tools from Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.

"Our workshop is equipped with everything you need. And our training is practical.

"In principle, our vocational school is a small machine factory, where many things can be made."

The trainees also get a small stipend of VND600,000 ($28) a month for meals.

Each course is for three years and the Widmers now have around 30 students, while 21 have completed their courses. They will take in more trainees this September.

The 21 are interning at Swiss cement giant Holcim's plant in Vietnam, thanks to the couple's efforts.

Widmer said with pride that his students have managed to produce most parts for their first two CNC machines, both automated milling devices, one of four tons and the other of more than five.

He said he is optimistic about the changes the students can bring to the country's mechanical industry.

The students said the Widmers are not only teachers, but also friends who are "devoted and professional."

"I feel secure studying from them, as they teach what we need and what the market needs," Dong Nai newspaper quoted one of their trainees, Nguyen Ba Tinh, as saying.

The Dong Nai government last May awarded the Widmers a certificate of merit for their work with the trainees and donations of medical equipment worth $150,000 to hospitals in the province.

The couple have plans to support dioxin victims.

Ngo Ba Bang, principal of the vocational school, said the Widmers' program is a "special gift."

"It is even more worthwhile that we can have some teachers in the class to learn, instead of sending them aboard for training at high cost."

Widmer said some home truths about how Vietnam should approach training given that it wants to develop machinery manufacturing, that many vocational graduates are only good in theory.

What the training sector needs is more practical experience, he said. Teachers should have at least six or seven years' factory experience and the links between vocational schools and factories should be tightened, he said.

He hopes his Vietnamese apprentices would one day have the chance to go to Switzerland for extended internships.

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