Death of the Appliance Apprentice.

Many years ago, a group of appliance service business owners and technicians meet. Some of those I knew, some I did not, some of the names I remember, most I have forgot. We were there to discuss pushing the government to add our trade, to the list of trades where government licensing was mandatory. 

THE GOAL WAS TO HAVE A BASE MINIMUM STANDARD

The goal was having a base minimum standard the consumers could look to and count on. From those early meetings the Certified Journeyman Appliance Serviceman was born. The name was awkward, unwieldy and non-inclusive. You don’t win every battle and so it was. 

The name wasn’t the only concern I had. While it was mandatory that you had to be licensed to service appliances there would be no enforcement. Fortunately, we now have enforcement and the name Appliance Service Technician replaced the 1950ish moniker.  

What we got right, at the time, was the program. Three years, combining on the job training with actual field experience under the direct supervision of a licensed technician, plus a yearly six-week, institutional curriculum-based program.  The best of both worlds, on the job training and classroom education. Experience is a valuable teacher in any field, experience layered on a sound foundation of theoretical knowledge, is the grail. This gave Alberta, what I believe is, the most stringent requirements in North America.

Thus, meting the goal, a base minimum standard. A consumer could know that the person, entering their home, had not picked a few tools at a garage sale and became an appliance repair pretender.  

Another wrinkle to our world is the Red Seal Certification. With a Red Seal a technician is licensed to operate in most provinces. Over the last few years the Provincial Apprenticeship Committee (PAC) has worked hard to update the training and definition of the AST program. The usually light time commitment of the committee was replaced with the labor-intensive job of updating the program including rewriting all exams and getting SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) on board to harmonize the training with the new goals and standards of the program. As result the Red Seal has, in my opinion, taken a giant step back in relation to the Alberta certification. Instead of its’ proper place as the top industry certification. 

HISTORY LESSON COMPLETE!

Why is the appliance apprenticeship program dying? Why would a program that provides the end user, the customer, with a high standard of training and experience, not be envy of North America?  Why not a beacon forcing other jurisdictions to raise their own standards? 

There are many reasons. If we save the sustainability of the industry for another post that leaves us with a couple worth talking about here. The first is that employers are not supporting apprenticeship. The vast majority of the cost of training an appliance service technician is the service companies. Unlike other industries where a candidate leaves post secondary with a range of skills that gives them ability to contribute in range to their compensation. The apprentice likely is starting from scratch with no knowledge. The employer will pay them to learn the skills needed. I peg the cost of training an apprentice with no experience at about sixty thousand, hard to come by, dollars. Realistically 4-5 years before a company sees a return on investment. While many trades can give the apprentice tasks which have value and help them learn the trade, the appliance world has few of those. The budding technician has to be in the presence of a senior technician almost continually at first. Depending on complexity of the task the trainee may work while the senior technician watches or if it is more complex the trainee watches while the senior technician works. The upshot of this is, the employer pays two people to do a signal persons work. There is no opportunity to charge more because two people are on site. In an industry where profit margins are notoriously thin, this is a hard cost to bear. 

This brings us to the other side of the coin the apprentice. The apprentice who is being paid to learn does not view their circumstances the same way a post secondary student views theirs. The post secondary student views their time in study as an investment in their future. Many apprentices view it as not enough compensation. Appliance apprenticeship is dying, in part, because the apprentice, employer partnership is frayed.  

Is it repairable? Employers and apprentices could enter contracts that would require the apprentice to pay back the costs of their training if they left before a described time. This would reinforce that both parties are making an investment, and that investment has a pegged cost. The apprentice still has a great advantage because at the end of it, they have a skill no student loans. Wonderful, except if the apprentice finds themselves in an untenable employment position, they could basically be forced to buy their way out.  

Is it repairable?

A pre-appliance apprenticeship course might have some merit. A full year at SAIT in a program similar to, the Pre-Employment Electrician course. Based on the electrical engineering technology program, salt in some basic appliance diagnostic training and wow would you look at that, the employers’ cost of training could be significantly reduced. Wipe a year off the apprenticeship program and you have a student who has invested, and employer with less investment and up-front risk. Balance might not be completely restored but certainly better. Perhaps this course with its’ specialist nature could be taught in a private accredited institution or a private public partnership. In such a partnership manufactures could become larger participants to help future Appliance Service Technicians receive relevant, current training.  

As tough as it is to take a hard look at program, I have long championed. Nothing can stand still forever without change. As valuable as recent changes over the past few years have been, the appliance apprentice in Alberta is close to suffering the same fate as the type setter. Change is a valid sign of progress. Some progress has been made. More will have to done to save a valuable program.  

 

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