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ETHistory 1855-2005 | Living memory | Departements | D-INFK | Impediments and Challenges | D-INFK | Lack of Qualified Personnel | 
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Lack of Qualified Personnel

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In 1969, the PTT (former Swiss communications - mail/phone/telegraph - company) startet a project to build up a digital communication network in Switzerland. For this so-called IFS (integrated telecommunication system) several other companies like  Hasler, Albis Werke Zurich as well as the Standard Telephon und Radio AG played important roles. The central computer for the control unit of the IFS-prototype was built by the mentioned Hasler, who had already produced parts for the ERMETH during the 1950s. The company had knowledge and expertise in the construction of computers for telex relaying and for traffic controls.

One of the main problems of the IFS-project was the lack of qualified personnel which was needed to program the complex systems. In Switzerland at that time there was no school or training focussing on programming in particular. The electrical engineers at the ETH did hardly get any instruction in this field, and if so, it was almost always as a voluntary subject. The executive committee of the IFS-project, therefore, contacted the ETH and proposed a more extensive education for engineers in this new field of computing. The ETH however did not follow this suggestion. Among the members of the executive committee of the IFS-project, the opinion prevailed that the recruitment of software specialist was "very difficult" in Switzerland. The only way out was "an education program with partner companies or the employment of specialist from abroad". But when they contacted the Federal Office for Economic Affairs in Berne they realised that the immigration of computer specialist was - inspite of the obvious shortage - not that easy to effect: "Unfortunately, the reaction of the corresponding official was absolutely negative and it seems hopeless to come to an agreement by way of a dialog." A few years later, the employment of foreigners was facilitated. Following this change, companies began to hire people from countries where the universities already offered graduate courses in computer science as for example England.

The shortage of software specialists continued to be a problem during the whole period of the IFS-project. At the end of the 1970s, then, an initiative was started by different companies of the electronic and software business with Hasler and in particular Hans-Jörg Mey, who became professor for computer science at the University of Berne in 1980, as a prominent leader to set up the Software School of Switzerland. However, this step could not prevent the IFS-project from being cancelled in 1983. Although the reasons for the project's end do not solely lie in the shortage of qualified staff, the permanent discussions regarding this topic, however, show the importance of it.

The example of the IFS-project shows that - even during the overall economic recession in the 1970s - the industry had a notable need for people with any kind of education in programming. Another company who's demand for engineers and computer scientist in particular was far above the normal rate was the Brown Boveri Company (BBC, today ABB). During the 1970s, BBC began to expand its division for control technology which produced control systems for power plants and production sites. For the programming of these systems BBC was looking for software specialists. Similar to Hasler, BBC according to its company magazine was also affected by "recruiting difficulties [...] for graduates of university engineering curricula". BBC did not, however, hold the ETH responsible for this lack of engineers, but noticed, ...

"...that the growing reservations towards large companies and large technological systems, which are used as scapegoats for the unease of a broad group of our society [sic], definitely holds off a fair amount of young people from entering into the engineering profession."

BBC Hauszeitung 3/1980, S. 11

BBC organised excursions for institutes of the ETH with the aim "to arouse the interest of students for a possible future employment at BBC".

(Sources: Talks with Albert Kündig; Bächi 2002; Gugerli 2002; Company Magazine of the BBC Brown Boveri AG.)

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© 2005 ETH Zurich | May 27, 2005 | !!! This document is stored in the ETH Web archive and is no longer maintained !!!