Back in the 1950s, there was a good deal of speculation about the impact of automation on society. I remember a science-fiction story in which someone asks the hero, "What are you going to do when a machine takes your job?
"Get a job repairing that machine," the hero replied.
This is a concise argument for vocational education. Everyone from President Obama on down is promoting technology as the key to America's future prosperity, and it's hard to disagree with that. What usually is overlooked in the public conversation about technology is that inventing and manufacturing wonderful new things is a very worthwhile endeavor -- but somebody has to know how those things work, and how to repair them when they don't.
The vending industry depends on machines, and it always has recognized the value of skilled technicians. People who are good at maintaining and repairing vending equipment always have been in demand, and more than a few of them have gone on to become vending operators and equipment distributors themselves. But we never have been very good at communicating the opportunity this presents to young people preparing to enter the workforce.
This is particularly unfortunate now, because that opportunity never has been greater. Vending technology today has become the cutting edge of retail automation, approaching the final stage of its half-century journey into the retailing mainstream. Machines providing food and refreshment service in the industry's traditional market segments are being joined by novel designs created primarily as advertising and sales promotion media. These are attracting a good deal of favorable press attention, and they are throwing a positive new light on vending. Those gee-whiz designs, though, make use of the same technology that has brought cashless transaction processing, interactive touchscreen product selectors and remote inventory and status monitoring to the latest generations of full-line vending machines. What's more, that same technology also is being applied to entirely new retailing systems like micromarkets and other unattended self-service stores.
Prior to the mid-1980s, a vending technician had to have a good working knowledge of electrical power and refrigeration systems. Soon thereafter, matters became more complex as the fast-growing field of solid-state electronics began to deliver more efficient alternatives to traditional switching and timing systems. Today, the convergence of telecommunications and digital computing is converting vending machines into wide-area network nodes. This transformation has imposed new demands on vending machine technicians -- but it also has expanded the horizons for alert, imaginative young people who develop the necessary skill set.
We were reminded of this history when we had the pleasure of traveling to the A. Philip Randolph Career and Technical High School in Philadelphia late last year. To the best of our knowledge, this is the only secondary school presently offering a vending technician's training course. That program was launched in 1989 by the School District of Philadelphia, and was led for a quarter of a century by James Clark. It has received strong support from the industry, mediated by an advisory council chaired by Bud Burke of Thayer Distribution (Gibbstown, NJ). That group held its first meeting with the new instructor, Davis Haines, in December, with the "very happily retired" Jim Clark and a number of students in attendance. The event greatly increased our optimism: these people know what they are trying to do, and are doing it.
Educational initiatives like this one are essential to the success of the vending industry as it evolves new service concepts and moves into a wider marketplace. It has long been recognized that the one necessary ingredient to a successful vending operation is customer confidence that the machines will work reliably. That confidence is built by effective preventive maintenance programs and swift, professional response to service interruptions. These processes require trained technicians who not only know how the equipment works and how to keep it working, but who also understand the role of technical service in keeping customers happy and giving the operation a competitive edge.
Beyond that, vocational education strongly supported by industry is essential to the future of the nation. We have to come to terms with technology, and it's arguable that the vending industry has done better than most in recognizing this: vending clients in general enjoy better technical support than (say) most computer owners. Today's electronically controlled machinery cannot be maintained reliably and economically by inspired tinkerers; technicians need a thorough grounding in theory, as well as practice.
We think the industry should take a close look at Randolph High School's vending technical training course and endeavor to get similar programs going in secondary schools around the country. The benefits, not only in better operational performance, but in increased community visibility, would be tremendous.