Update 3/8/2018: Reviews and information regarding self-study materials, such as books or used correspondence literature, has been added to the “Classes and Continuing Education” section.
Update 3/20/2018: Added a link to the “Finding Locksmith Job Opportunities” article at the beginning of the “How to Become a Locksmith” section.
I’ve been contacted via Twitter and a few forums I frequent over the years about how someone would go about becoming a locksmith or, at the very least, get their foot in the door. I figured I would dedicate an article to this subject to help those with similar ambitions, questions, etc.
The State of Locksmithing
Before I start getting into the meat and potatoes, let me first talk about the trade. There are a lot of misconceptions about this trade (any locksmith can testify to this).
First, no two locksmith businesses are alike. In other words, I cannot tell you what you would or wouldn’t be doing daily. Each locksmith business, whether it’s one man and his truck or one with dozens of service vehicles, has their own unique business model. Some may specialize in areas such as automotive, commercial, safes, residential, access control, all, some, or one. Company A might not touch automotive work, Company B might do automotive work exclusively, Company C might only do residential and commercial, Company D might do it all, Company E might specialize in safes, etc. Successful locksmith companies have identified their niche(s) and become proficient at it.
Second, we usually do far more than just “keys and locks”. Yes, keys and locks are a big part of most locksmith shops but we do much more. Some of us install and service access control, or card swipe, systems. Some of us install new doors and frames. Some of us open safes or move safes. Some of us do video surveillance, or CCTV. In other words, if you are interested in becoming a locksmith, there is much more to do than key and locks. I like to tell people that a well-rounded locksmith is part carpenter, part electrician, and part mechanic.
Third, the locksmithing trade, like most trades, is experiencing an “age dilemma”. According to Emsi, 53% of skilled-trade workers in the U.S. are 45 years and older. That’s nearly 10% more than the overall labor force. In some states the actual numbers are especially higher than the national average. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New Hampshire over 60% of the skilled-trade workers are 45 years and older. In other words, we need new faces, new blood to replace an aging sector of the trade. Jobs are plentiful. A quick search of Indeed.com as of 1/24/2017 shows over 1,000 jobs across the U.S. with either locksmith in their job title or job description. These jobs range from locksmiths to general maintenance jobs with minor locksmithing duties. Of these jobs, 445 specify entry-level with 43 explicitly stating apprentices and the like. In other words, the work is there.
Fourth, it’s a decent living and I can’t imagine you will ever be without work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual wage of $42,180. This is a national average, of course, and your mileage will vary, so to speak, depending on where you work and who you work for. I have found, from my own personal experience and anecdotal conversations, that the numbers reported by the BLS are on the conservative side. In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual median annual wage was more. To quote one of my mentors in this industry, “I’ve never been rich but I’ve never had to worry about putting food on the table.” Additionally, the BLS charted an expected a 12% growth in the locksmith trade between 2008-2018; this is nearly 2% more than the average growth rate of all occupations for the same period (10.1%).
How to Become a Locksmith
With any new endeavor in life it’s hard to know if “it” is truly for you. But, if you are convinced that locksmithing may be for your, or at least interested in giving it an honest shot, here are some helpful ways to get into the industry:
This is how I started; this is the best way. You can apply online to various job postings but I have found that the best way to secure an apprenticeship is to make face-to-face contact with locksmith companies. Call around and ask nearby locksmith companies if they are currently hiring apprentices. Stop by and meet with them face to face. Express that you’re interested in learning the trade and making a career out of it. Explain why you chose the trade and what interests you about it. These sort of impressions are bit more effective than simply sending an email or resume. If you know nothing about locksmithing, that’s fine, most actually prefer that – you have no bad habits they have to correct. Most locksmith companies that take on apprentices desire individuals who are punctual, have a good attitude, are honest, have a clean DMV and criminal history, and possess a bit of mechanical aptitude. If you have prior skilled trade or military experience this bodes especially well for your chances.
Apprenticeships pay, but not well. After all, you won’t be able to offer much to an employer initially. Don’t let this dissuade you. The pay will come and you will be in full control of how fast you learn and become profitable for the company. I will touch on this shortly.
There is no blueprint or agreement for apprenticeships that locksmith companies follow (although states like New Jersey have guidelines for apprenticeships that tie into their licensing). Some companies have experience with apprentices and know the methodology to progress the apprentice in a timely and fitting manner. Some have never had an apprentice. In other words, your experience will be different from mine and nearly all others. Your knowledge and experience will be sculpted by the type of work they do (see above). The company may do A LOT of residential work and you may learn rekeying and residential hardware servicing and installation like the back of your hand. Or you may be utilized to assist a particular department within the company like access control. The first year I apprenticed I rarely touched a lock; I pulled wire and tied in access control panels to assist the access control technician at the company I worked at. Everyone is different.
If an apprenticeship opportunity is not available to you then there are other options available. First, you can seek employment for a general maintenance or similar position that has locksmithing duties, such as rekeying or lock installation. This can be used to build and develop quantifiable job skills related to locksmithing, which can then be used when applying for a locksmith position. Second, and this can be used on top of a general maintenance or similar position, is to improve your value to potential employers. This can be done in a number of ways (and this applies to apprentices as well):
The ALOA Security Professionals Association, Inc., commonly referred to as simply ALOA, is our industries largest and most well known association. By joining ALOA you will be able to greatly increase your success and network avenues in this trade.
ALOA has a membership type known as “Probationary”. Probationary members are those who are “undergoing training to qualify as an Active member, who have not received one of ALOA’s recognized program designations.” In other words, people new to the industry that don’t yet qualify for any other membership types. Probationary membership is meant for apprentices. The current cost is $235 for U.S. members, $215 if you elect to “Go Green” and receive all correspondence electronically, along with a $70 application fee. This may seem steep for someone just starting in the field but it is well worth it. It’s a small investment towards securing the median annual wage we discussed earlier.
So, why join ALOA? There are a number of reasons for someone interested in starting in this trade.
First, networking. By being an ALOA member, you will be able to actively network with other ALOA members. Hopefully, your area will have an active ALOA Chapter or locksmith association. By being a member of ALOA, you will be able to meet and, with their approval, join their Chapter or association. Chapters and associations vary but generally you can expect a few dozen members meeting multiple times a year and hosting everything from classes to banquets to manufacturer presentations and then some. This is an EXCELLENT networking tool. You will be meeting locksmiths, locksmith business owners, and those actively involved in the locksmith industry.
Second, education. I don’t know a locksmith business owner that doesn’t recognize the value of ALOA education. Classes can cost money, yes, but for someone trying to start in the industry, it’s another great investment to show potential employers that you are serious about succeeding in the industry and that you have quality education. ALOA membership also includes a subscription to a monthly trade magazine Keynotes. Keynotes has a wealth of information that will help you learn about this trade.
Third, legitimacy. By taking the steps to join ALOA, potential employers recognize that you are a cut above the rest. Built into each ALOA application is a background check and association vetting. At the very least, you will be able to demonstrate to a potential employer that you’re taking things seriously, going about things the right way, and have passed their background check and vetting process.
Classes and Continuing Education
Classes and continuing education are important for any locksmith or apprentice, or even those trying to get into the industry. Remember what I said about being in control of how fast you learn and become profitable for your employer or improving your value to potential employers? This is what I mean. The faster you learn and the more you are able to learn the more valuable you will be, and thus more profitable.
Take advantage of classes offered by ALOA and your local association and Chapters. Furthermore, check in with any local distributors, like Anixter, IDN, etc. They also host classes. These are all valuable to show potential or current employers. You are learning and progressing and adding value to not only yourselves but your employer.
There are classes available online as well. ASSA ABLOY offers a number of online classes at their ASSA ABLOY Americas University. They offer a wealth of information and they are free. Another great source of information are manufacturer’s websites. Yes, most of the information is catered to their products but there is a great number of “white papers” and generalized information that can help teach you. Our Library section contains links to a number of these documents.
Self-study options are available, such as books and used correspondence course literature, and some are actually very valuable. We’ve compiled a list of a few of these texts along with basic information and reviews:
- Introductory Locksmithing Books and Courses: Ranked and Reviewed
- Review: Servicing Lever Handle Cylindrical Locks by J. I. Levine
- Review: Jake Jakubuwski Presents: Aluminum Stile Door Service and Repair by Jake Jakubuwski
- Review: The National Locksmith Guide: Door Lock Encyclopedia by Robert G. Sieveking
I have heard good and bad about correspondence courses offered by Foley-Belsaw, Penn Foster, and the like. I’m not here evaluate any of them. What I will say is that if you are interested in taking these courses, hold off. Attempt to secure an apprenticeship and join ALOA and local Chapters or associations first. If you can’t find an apprenticeship, look for a job that has locksmithing duties. If neither opportunity arises within a year then take a course. Until that year elapses, I would devote my time and resources to reaching out to companies for an apprenticeship, joining ALOA, finding similar work, and/or networking and taking classes at local events.
Becoming a locksmith isn’t an insurmountable task. For some it’s easier than others but that’s nearly always a matter of circumstance that you won’t have control over. Hopefully the information above will serve you well. As I said, I have been in your shoes. If you have any questions, need assistance or guidance, or just want to network, I am easily reached and here to help. If I can’t personally help you then I’ll do my best to put you in touch with someone in your area that may be able to.