Why time has run out for Saint Paul College's watchmaking program

What Saint Paul College once billed as the nation’s oldest watchmaking program is closing down, the college’s president confirmed late yesterday afternoon.

Rassoul Dastmozd did not elaborate, but wrote me an e-mail stating:

“The Saint Paul College Watchmaking Program ended this month following decreases in enrollment and continued funding challenges.  All students who remained in the program were able to complete the entire program.”

It seems like a sad end to a program that once seemed to be promising.

You may remember the piece MPR’s business editor, Bill Catlin, did on the program back in May 2003. Its title: Watchmakers: The New Dot-Commers.

That title alone is strong stuff. Program director Joe Juaire told him at the time:

“We’re seeing requests for employees in the neighborhood of 50 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.”

So what happened?

Officials there haven’t said, but I’ve asked Dastmozd to speak to me at length about it, and am hoping for a response.

A Nov. 30, 2010 e-mail to Catlin from Craig Anderson, the college’s VP for corporate, foundation and community relations, might shed a little light on the funding challenges.

In response to some questions from Catlin about the program, Anderson wrote:

We are delaying the start of a new incoming class until January 2012 predicated on securing additional outside financial support to replace the Rolex funding which ends as of June 30, 2011.

Rolex was financially supporting the program through the second of two five-year, $1 million grants to the college.  But Rolex withdrew its funding effective at the end of the third year.

In another note to Catlin, Anderson outlined the school’s plan in response to the Rolex decision:

The remaining Rolex funding will allow the current group of students to finish the second year of their program and graduate in December 2011.

The reason we have delayed the start of a new cohort this January is twofold.

One, only five students had registered so far but we need 12 to run the program and secondly, since the program is two years in length, assuming we did have 12 students (and we don’t) we would not have enough funding to finish their second year and graduate.  It would not be financially prudent on our part to incur a significant budget shortfall for this one program.

The vast majority of students in this program come from outside of Minnesota and need notification far earlier in the enrollment process than our traditional students.  They need to physically move here requiring notice to their current employers, sign leases etc.

Therefore, we made the decision to delay the start of a new section based upon the adverse financial impact that a new program start would have on the college in year two of the program without Rolex’s funding.

I am hopeful we can identify additional sources of funding by August 2011 which would allow us to start another section of 12 students in the fall.

Although the grant funding was supposed to run through June 30, 2013, Anderson gave Catlin this explanation for Rolex’ withdrawal:

“Yes, I would say that they did terminate early because their funds were limited. They are now supporting a new training certification called SAWTA that Rolex began to implement in early 2009 at the other two community colleges supported by Rolex. Our instructors to the best of my knowledge choose to stay with the WOSTEP certification and not the new standard Rolex has decided to support.”

Exactly why instructors chose to stick with the old certification and not follow the Rolex funding is unclear.

I hope to get some clarity today or tomorrow.