Posted On: 2/15/2017

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TAGS: Vending Times editorial, vending industry, vending editorial, retail automation, vending operator, vending industry history, coin machine, coffee service, food service, Tim Sanford

Well-trained vending technicians have bright career outlook

The vending industry has not done a particularly effective job of publicizing its employment prospects for young people with good interpersonal skills and a willingness to work. From time to time, observers, including Vending Times, have suggested that operators arrange to attend "career days" at their local schools, and a number of them have done so. But the industry really has no mechanism for keeping the spotlight on the appeal of working for a vending (or coffee service, or micromarket) operation.

This is not surprising. Because workplace service operations typically do business under contract to locations engaged in some other line of work, few people really know who installs, fills and services the vending machines they use. This always has presented a public relations challenge, and it certainly makes it harder to imagine taking a job with a vending operation than seeking a career in a more visible industry.

One unfortunate consequence of this is that vending-specific technical training always has been hard to come by. Over the past four decades or so, there have been attempts to set up vocational training courses for aspiring vending machine maintenance and repair specialists in a number of schools around the country. Only one has endured: the acclaimed Vending Repair program at the A. Philip Randolph Career Academy, run by the School District of Philadelphia.

The longevity of this program can be attributed to the exemplary support it has received from all segments of the vending industry in the Delaware Valley (and beyond). It also has been blessed with two extremely able instructors: James Clark, who led it for nearly a quarter of a century, and his successor, Davis Haines. We had the pleasure of visiting the school two years ago, and editorialized on it in our March 2014 edition.

We have wondered why more vocational high schools haven't recognized the value of training young people in the technical aspects of vending. Today's vending equipment incorporates technologies that are finding very widespread use; anyone who has used a supermarket self-checkout line will have noticed that the whole thing is made possible by payment systems commonly used in vending machines, and now micromarkets. It also may have been observed that they often don't work.

That difficulty seems to illustrate a problem that has not yet been considered in the context of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum that has taken center stage in discussions of the sort of education necessary to prepare young people for the economy of the future. Part of this may be attributable to the ancient and still-widespread belief that constructing and maintaining machines is a blue-collar occupation, and that the prestigious jobs are those that don't involve getting your hands dirty. The "Internet of things" may hold immense promise, but that promise can be realized only if there are enough people available to keep those things running properly.

The Randolph program in Philadelphia has encountered a certain amount of friction because of its singularity. The federal government's current Classification of Instructional Programs, for example, does not include a category for vending machine technicians. The 1990 edition did -- "47-0109: Vending and Recreational Machine Repair" -- but that was dropped from the 2000 edition, and did not reappear in 2010. Someone unfamiliar with the complexity of the real world might conclude that there is no way to certify a program designed to teach a skill not enumerated in a government classification. Every so often, someone has raised this point, but the continuing success of the program and its widespread local and industry support has provided persuasive arguments for continuing it anyway.

We think it's time for the vending (and, for that matter, the amusement and music) industry to get a bit more involved with shaping government perceptions of these subjects. The thing to emphasize is not that there is an urgent present need for more vending machine technicians and a crash program is required to meet it. Rather, the talking-points should be (1) that there is a continuing need for qualified technicians, and those technicians make a good living; and (2) that the skills involved in maintaining today's vending and amusement equipment are applicable to many other fields, quite a few of which are growing rapidly. Vending machines do a great deal more than most microprocessor-controlled Internet-enabled things, so knowing how they work and how to keep them working is a marketable skill that is likely to find wider and wider scope for its profitable exercise in the future.

The vending industry can spread this message as it deals with government at all levels, and perhaps with schools at the local level. The National Automatic Merchandising Association has supported government education and training initiatives, including a formal apprenticeship program. We're not sure that a new program is needed, but we don't think that it would be hard to shine the spotlight on the role our industry can play in improving the employment outlook in the United States.