A recurring topic in the ongoing vending industry conversation is the difficulty of finding qualified technicians to handle maintenance and repair in the shop and in the field.
Over the decades, there have been times when state associations have worked with vocational schools to set up education programs. These initiatives have tended to come and go; the cynical explanation is that operators in a market where it's difficult to find qualified help will support a program until they're able to hire the technicians they need. After that, they're concerned that continued support will only enable their competitors to solve the same problem. (Another cynical observation has been that many operators prefer to hire qualified technicians from a competitor, which not only solves their problem, but creates one for him.)
One program that has endured is the public high school-level vending repair course designed and taught by James Clark. It was launched about two decades ago at the Philadelphia School District's Thomas A. Edison High School's Fareira Skills Center, with the active backing of the Pennsylvania Automatic Merchandising Council. The course now has relocated to the Philip A. Randolph Career Academy, and continues to receive strong support from PAMC's successor, the Tri-State Automatic Merchandising Council, through an advisory committee now chaired by Bud Burke of Anpesil Distribution Services (Gibbstown, NJ).
Over the years, the program has established a consistent track record of placing capable graduates in vending industry positions. In addition to learning the fundamentals of vending equipment maintenance and repair, the students operate several machines in the school, with the proceeds going to the institution's student activity fund. Equipment and product is donated by industry companies.
Jim Clark plans to retire this year. The Tri-State advisory council is underwriting his final trip to the National Automatic Merchandising Association's OneShow in his official capacity, as usual accompanied by several vending repair students. A search is underway for his successor.
This program deserves not only the wholehearted industry support that it receives, but to be emulated around the country. Vending has become a high-tech industry, and its continued growth and success will depend on the reliable functioning of its equipment, which is supporting additional layers of complexity as venders become nodes in wide-area networks.
The last time technical training rose from the status of a continual concern to a hot topic was in the early '80s, when solid-state devices began to replace electromechanical timers and sensors in vending equipment (as they had in automobiles, and would in home appliances). A gearmotor-and-camshaft timer can be understood by watching it carefully, and given a feel for how objects interact, the watcher could figure out how to adjust it. Even then, the intuitive mechanic needed to understand electricity and electrical safety. Today's technicians still do, but they no longer can dope out a mechanism by watching it go.
As these solid-state devices multiplied and congregated on controller boards, it become possible to "fix" many problems by switching out a board -- or several, one at a time -- until the thing worked. It was pointed out, forcefully, at the time that this was no substitute for informed troubleshooting: one spent a lot of money for backup boards, and an electrical problem that had caused the defective board to fail would blow up the next one, too; and the next, until a knowledgeable technician intervened and corrected the underlying fault. A trained technician who knows how to use a multimeter can save the operation a lot of money, over time.
Meanwhile, the growing popularity of combination machines has put a premium on informed knowledge of refrigeration systems. And while, in the old days, health controls that disable a machine if its internal temperature rises to an unsafe level were found only on refrigerated food venders and dairy-product machines, they are becoming more widespread as temperature-sensitive snacks and beverages gain popularity. Here, too, diagnosing the problem correctly and fixing it on the first try minimizes the bottom-line impact of a malfunction.
There also is a perennial need for continuing education of technicians. The factories and their distributors work diligently to provide much of this, and NAMA has a two-level technician training program that can provide the underlying knowledge that an individual needs to progress from talented amateur to skilled professional. But neither of these valuable resources can get young people on the vending maintenance career path; only local schools can do that.
We think Jim Clark deserves the industry's thanks for his long, devoted and successful efforts to train young technicians -- and for his insightful comments at some memorable industry events. At a moment when "creating jobs" has become a popular slogan, we need trained people to fill the jobs that become available.