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.
“It used to be if an appliance got damaged but was still workable, the customers would return it to get a new one. 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 and tear on refrigerators and dishwashers.
For people like 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 past 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 over 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 novel coronavirus hit, and his family decamped from Manhattan. Nonstop service for four people broke the old Kenmore, and they waited over 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 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, Tex. suburb, where students learn the trade of fixing refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens, washing machines and dryers.
Now 60, Carr plans to work for another five to seven 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.”
Though not ordinarily this dramatic, there has always been more demand than supply for appliance repair technicians, business owners and industry associations say. It’s a career that can offer good pay, job security and mobility — yet there are never enough takers. The pandemic has just exacerbated the underlying factors, finally putting the spotlight on a previously overlooked essential worker, they argue.
That’s at odds with government projections.
Before the pandemic, home appliance repair was projected to decline 6.9 percent 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 percent and 15.4 percent by 2029, respectively, said Francisco Velez, an economist in the Division of Occupational Employment Projections at the BLS.
“Because 56 percent 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 they call a gap in skilled trade laborers projected to hit 3 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.”
Before the pandemic, Dyer Academy was running consistently at about 65 percent 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.”
She had expected the opposite. But the academy continued to draw jolted workers — notably from the service industry, including bartenders and servers from North and South Carolina.
“People from the service industry do great in appliance repair because they can communicate with customers, which is half the battle,” Dyer-Yoder said. “If they’re mechanically minded, they can be taught appliance repair. It’s harder to teach soft skills.”
Fred’s shut down in-person training and is shifting to an online learning model until students can return to its campus safely. It’s also introducing a la carte options, for professionals and hobbyists, director Adam Butcher said.
“The BLS isn’t right about our outlook,” Butcher said. “I don’t have hard stats to actually back that, but I can do it with 20 years of industry experience. I’ve got connections all over the country, and you would be hard-pressed to find a service company that’s not actively looking for help.”
Fred’s boasts a 100 percent employment rate for its students, although that includes some sent by their employers, Butcher said.
What the field needs, he said, is visibility.
“There’s a lack of awareness that the job even exists. If you go to Monster.com, and all those kinds of jobs and resume websites, appliance repairman isn’t listed as an option. We’re an industry that is not really recognized, even as a trade career opportunity,” Butcher said.
Yet his service company has double the number of open tickets that it had before the pandemic.
For the long term, people still own, on average, five large household appliances, he said. As machines get smarter, there will be more parts that will break down.
Though the pandemic and rolling lockdowns may end, Caruso of the United Appliance Servicers Association thinks working from home is here to stay. With it comes continued strain on appliances. “If you’re wearing sweatpants all day, you’re not going to get dressed to go out to lunch,” she said.
Caruso’s own repair business in New Orleans, Solar Refrigeration & Appliance Service, has picked up about 30 percent since the pandemic started. “It would be more if we could quickly hire appliance technicians,” she said.
It’s the same for Krystle McConnell. Her family business, Lake Appliance Repair, now employs about 59 technicians, up from 48. “If we could find more, we would hire more,” she said.
Pre-covid, the company operated in California, Nevada and Hawaii. Then Whirlpool, which contracts with her company, asked her to expand to Montana because of the surge in need. One tech moved back to Idaho, which opened another outpost.
Since March, McConnell says, Lake has hired auto mechanics, painters (from Sherwin-Williams, including its first female technician) and restaurant servers.
Jeff Guinn’s company Guinco employs 115 people in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas. He said manufacturers are constantly saying they need more repair techs, no matter the location.
“I don't know an easier job to move to a different location and get a job,” he said. “When people leave me, because the wife got transferred or whatever, I make a phone call and they just go to work on Monday. There's never a gap.”
Still, unlike HVAC or other trades, appliance repair isn’t taught in most vocational curriculums — though some in the business think that could be about to change.
“High school kids were all told, you have to go to college,” said Dyer-Yoder’s husband, Chris Yoder, who runs the day-to-day business of Dyer Academy. “Now we’ve kind of got this generation of college graduates that are out there. They’re struggling to pay the bills.”
“We’re kind of starting to see a little bit of a shift. [People are saying] it’s okay to go into the trades coming out of high school, that you’re not going to rack up a bunch of debt and can make a good living.”
Dyer has even started to get inquiries from parents about their 16- or 17-year old kids. For the first time this year, it was invited to a local high school convention alongside colleges.
The outlook for repair is also being buoyed by a growing movement to repair appliances rather than buy new by default.
“Repair is almost always cheaper, even if it’s 50 to 80 percent of a product’s price,” said Nathan Proctor, director of the U.S. PIRG Campaign for the Right to Repair, adding that there’s no guarantee a new machine won’t also break.
It’s not just cheaper machines either, Proctor said. “There’s no correlation between the amount you pay for an appliance and if it breaks.”
One previously overlooked potential for growth is the emergence of women technicians. Dyer didn’t certify a woman until 2017. Since then, the number of female technicians has increased 15 percent 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 reevaluated 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. Now she 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.
She recently moved from Texas to Arizona to be closer to home.
“People are worrying about a job, and I’m being relocated. So it was really exciting to be doing good this year,” she said.