As a sales manager for the plumbing, heating and appliance supplier Ferguson Enterprises, Phillip Carr witnessed escalating demand for appliance repair early in the pandemic. He sold to builders, so he had already seen how fragile the global supply chain has become. Then the machines — and the parts that compose them — became scarce because of trade disputes with China and Germany, shuttered factories, and manufacturers converting to make protective equipment.
He decided to go over to the other side — where the jobs were.
Customers used to return damaged appliances to get a new one, but "they don’t do that now because there’s no new ones to get,” Carr said. “So that’s added to the amount of repairs that need to be done and backing up repair people, as well. Because if it’s working, people are going to have to keep it.”
Amid the general collapse of the service economy during the pandemic — think retail or restaurants — appliance repair technicians are seeing explosive demand for their services as families adjust to living at home 24/7, sometimes with adult children, elderly parents or in-laws expanding households and putting more wear on refrigerators and dishwashers.
For people such as Carr, who was at risk of reduced earnings or even losing his job, it is proving to be an elusive bright spot in an otherwise devastating labor market — and with long-term potential.
Gone are the days of the lonely Maytag repairman. The repairman of 2020 — with few exceptions, it’s still most often a man — has been working nonstop for the last seven months as the suddenly homebound find themselves cooking and laundering more than ever.
The strain of relentless domesticity is showing up in overworked or, in some cases, previously untouched appliances. America's stay-at-home workers have had to deploy ovens used to store shoes to actually cook meals. Fridges are constantly mined for snacks, and dry-cleaned suits have been replaced with day pajamas that double as napkins. The machines can take only so much.
A broken device can push a strained family over the edge. Repair technicians — when they can be booked — can take more than a month to fix a much-needed machine.
Take Carl McCarthy’s dishwasher in his weekend house in the Catskills. In 12 years, it never saw daily use. Then the coronavirus hit, and his family decamped from Manhattan. Nonstop service for four people broke the old Kenmore, and they waited more than a month for it to be repaired.
“We had to do dishes by hand, and it proved to be too much for the family to handle,” McCarthy said. “One day I bought a huge plastic trash can and tons of paper plates, disposable plastic cups, and cutlery and hid all the real dishes and cutlery.”
After learning that the key part would take weeks to arrive if ordered from the manufacturer, McCarthy tracked it down for $12 on eBay. Another visit from the repairman and the family escaped dirty dish purgatory.
As similar scenes play out across the country, repair companies are triaging calls, hiring new employees, and navigating backlogs from the broken supply chain for parts.
After witnessing this from the outside, Carr took the early retirement option to start his own business. In August, he enrolled in the three-week Dyer Appliance Repair Academy course in a Fort Worth, Texas, suburb, where students learn the trade of fixing refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens, washing machines and dryers.
Now 60, Carr plans to work for five to seven more years. He sees opportunity, not just for him but for two sons in their 20s. One is finishing his degree and entering an uncertain job market; the other has a hotel service job.
In his August cohort, Carr learned alongside three military guys transitioning into civilian life, two people with some repair experience but not enough to get a full-time job, and someone in law enforcement.
Since then, it's all been moving faster than he expected, as he's trying to get his website up and contract with manufacturers. He's constantly fielding calls from people who need repairs. In fact, when he went to Verizon to hook up a phone for his newly minted company, the salesperson said: "I need to talk to you because I had to try to fix my own appliance because I couldn't get it done."
Before the pandemic, home appliance repair was projected to decline 6.9% from 2019 to 2029, from 38,400 to 35,800 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In part, that was the knock-on effect of the larger businesses that historically employed them. Repair technicians mostly work in industries projected to decline, namely electronics and appliance stores, and personal and household goods repair and maintenance, which are projected to decrease 12.8% and 15.4% by 2029, respectively, said Francisco Velez, an economist in the Division of Occupational Employment Projections at the BLS.
“Because 56% of repair jobs fall within these two categories, appliance repair is expected to decline, as well,” Velez said.
But industry was betting against those projections, even before the pandemic. In 2019, Lowe’s launched Generation T, an initiative with 60 other companies to fill what it calls a gap in skilled trade laborers projected to hit three million job vacancies by 2028.
Corrine C. Caruso, president of the United Appliance Servicers Association, the industry’s main trade association, vehemently disagrees with the BLS’s projections, as well as its data placing the mean annual salary at $42,400.
She said techs average $60,000 to $70,000, with top earners clearing six figures.
"There aren't enough appliance service technicians because there are very few formal training schools available. The majority have learned on the job," Caruso said. "Generally, if you've trained a technician from the ground up, a business owner has made quite an investment into this technician, so will pay well to keep the technician, and will offer good benefits so that it is a career, not just a job."
There are only two major players in repair education: Dyer Appliance Repair Academy in the Fort Worth area and Fred's Appliance Academy in Madison, Ohio.
Before the pandemic, Dyer Academy was running consistently at about 65% capacity. When it opened again in May after lockdown, classes were full.
June, July, August, September and October followed suit, with the rest of the year overbooked — at almost twice the number of students pre-COVID.
“We’ve never had wait lists. Now it’s five or six students” every month, owner Heather Dyer-Yoder said, for classes that max out at 11. “Since COVID-19 there’s been a drastic increase in people calling and interested in appliance repair.”
One previously overlooked potential for growth is the emergence of female technicians. Dyer didn’t certify a woman until 2017. Since then, the number of female technicians has increased 15% every year, Dyer-Yoder said.
Carleen Ferriera is one of them. She had gone through several jobs — pet photographer, hot air balloon crew for Kenny Chesney’s rum brand, an Air Force contractor — before settling into massage therapy. She didn’t want to join the ranks of other millennials, drowning in debt, so she didn’t want to go back to college.
But two years ago, eyeing her 30th birthday, she re-evaluated work. She wanted stability and a good salary, and didn't want to be confined to a desk.
In January 2019, she completed her course and was hired by Guinco, which employs 115 people in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas. Now, this Arizona resident said she feels fulfilled at a job that she loves, making a difference in people’s lives. Plus, she earns $10,000 more than she ever made from massage therapy. She hopes to boost her salary even further to $65,000 next year.