There was no small amount of hand-wringing several months ago when Foley-Belsaw announced the discontinuation of its locksmith correspondence course.  Several people proclaimed it was a sign of the end of locksmithing. And who can forget Gale Johnson’s Changes In the Wind?

If a company ceases to offer a correspondence course for a trade, does that mean the trade is over?  Well, years earlier Foley-Belsaw stopped offering a course on HVAC.  Anyone who has had to call, and pay for, an HVAC technician knows that they are both in demand and doing a brisk business.  Who knows why Foley-Belsaw dropped that course years ago, but it was not because of a lack of demand for HVAC technicians, and the HVAC industry did not seem to suffer for it going away. 

In my spare time, I sometimes enjoy reading old magazines like Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated.  The 1960s must have been the heyday of correspondence courses. There was page after page of correspondence course ads in magazines of that era.  And sure enough, there was Belsaw’s locksmith course (it was Belsaw before it was Foley-Belsaw), and there was also a course from the Locksmithing Institute.  But there were just as many ads, if not more, for courses to train to be a lawyer, an accountant, an engineer, a mechanic, an insurance investigator, an appliance repairman, or a meat cutter, just to name a few.  That there are few, if any, of those correspondence courses today does not mean that accountants, mechanics, and appliance repairmen are not still out there making a living. 

When the Locksmithing Institute went out of business in the early 1980’s, it did not coincide with a drop in the need for locksmiths.  If anything, that may have been a sort of golden age for locksmithing.  Scammers were unheard of.  Homeowners were still calling locksmiths to install deadbolt locks on their 1970’s homes to get the insurance discount.  Compared to these days, automotive locksmithing did not require much investment to get into.  And the Locksmithing Institute course material, said to have been created by locksmithing legend Leonard Singer, was actually pretty good.  So why did the Locksmithing Institute go under?  Who knows?  But it seemed to have little to do with the state of the industry. 

Saving up for a correspondence course, then working though it instead of spending time in front of the TV set every night, and then moving up in the world, is as American as apple pie and Chevrolet.  A sort of do-it-yourself American Dream. And for someone who wanted to go into locksmithing, the courses did give them the basics.  It would give them a head start in an apprenticeship, so long as they did not think they knew it all.  It might prepare them for residential locksmithing—if they could find enough work to make a living. 

So most of us probably have a soft spot in their heart for at least the idea of correspondence courses.  But times have changed.  There is only a fraction of the correspondence courses offered today that were offered fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago.  Perhaps the question should not be why has demand for locksmith correspondence courses dropped over the years, but rather, why is there still demand at all?  In the heyday of correspondence courses, there was a labor shortage in much of America.  It was also an era when people went to work for one company for life.  It was not a big deal to hire someone who showed promise by, for example, having completed a course related to the job, and then train them.  What would a year or two of training amount to, if that employee would likely be working at the same company for the next twenty or thirty years?  Those days are over.  It could be that correspondence courses never were all that amazing, but they did not need to be. 

Training courses for other trades, these days, tend to be short, in-person seminars, or they are over the web.  For technical subjects, web classes may include computer simulations where electricians can use a virtual volt meter to check out a virtual malfunctioning machine.  A person might program a CNC lathe on a simulator.  Or they might construct the ladder logic for a programmable logic controller to run an imaginary machine.  Great ideas, but it would take a lot of locksmithing students to justify someone programming that sort of thing, or at least contracting a programmer to do it for them.  That, and locksmithing is very much a hands-on skill anyway. 

Today, of all the trades out there, why do people think locksmithing can still be learned by correspondence courses?  Does anyone read through a binder of lessons, take some quizzes, then try to get a job as a carpenter?  Or a mechanic?  Perhaps it is because there are in-person training programs for those trades, while there simply are not enough locksmiths out there to justify either local union or community college programs.  Such programs, and anything close to them, for locksmiths can be counted on one hand with some fingers left over.  It may be a case that correspondence courses are not that great at teaching locksmithing either, but what else is there for someone not lucky enough to have a good apprenticeship?    

It turns out that someone bought the locksmithing program from Foley-Belsaw and they have just re-launched it, so to speak:

So anyone who thought that Foley-Belsaw going away was the end of the world can rest easy on that count.  But the question remains, is there a better way to learn locksmithing than by a correspondence course?