Labor Day: The locksmiths

Labor Day: The locksmiths

By SUSAN KANTOR/For The News-Gazette

When Denny Birt started working at a locksmith shop in high school, the job was manual.

"We pretty much no longer hand cut keys like we used to. Everything is either done with a code machine or computerized machines. When I first started, we had to drill holes in doors by hand. Now, we have electric drill motors. Everything when I started was pretty much hands on, whereas now, we have machinery to do everything that we had way back," Birt said.

Birt went to trade school to become a sheet metal worker. He realized the trade wasn't for him and came back to work at Dave & Harry Locksmiths in 1972. He learned the trade from then-owner Stan Haney and never left. He now owns the shop at 116 E. University Ave., C.

Technology has changed the job. In addition to traditional mechanical keys, Dave & Harry Locksmiths does automotive locks, electronic access systems, video recordings and handicap access systems. Business is about half mechanical locks and half electronic locks.

"I think you have to know the history to work in the present. Some of my technicians don't know how to do what I did way back when, but they know how to do it with a machine the same way I did it by hand," Birt said.

Dave Hasty, locksmith foreman with Facilities and Services at the University of Illinois, has worked in the UI lock shop since 1990, and he also acknowledges how technology has changed the trade. Hasty learned to cut keys manually in the '80s. When he started at the university, computers weren't part of the shop, and any electronic lock work was left to electricians.

Now, the UI shop relies on computers. Keys are code cut by computer-programmed machines. Some keys are duplicated manually, but all first keys are computer generated. Locksmiths are responsible for all electronic locking devices, except for running the actual wire for those devices – that's still left to electricians.

There are 250 electronic card access systems on campus, and they continue to be installed. The systems have several electronic components that locksmiths need to understand. The lock has internal electric motors, a control panel and a switch that tells it if a door is opened or closed. The locksmiths can download information from the lock with a personal digital assistant and tell who has entered the room.

"Anything you do on a continual basis doesn't seem like you've learned a lot, but if you look back, what I did 25 years ago opposed to what I do now, it's quite a bit what I've learned," Hasty said. "With any trade, you grow within it and you don't learn a lot more at any given time, you just grow with your profession."

From what Hasty and Birt have experienced, fewer younger people are interested in the locksmith trade. The last person Hasty hired three years ago was the youngest of three candidates at 46.

"I don't think kids today get the ability to acquire that mechanical skill the way that maybe the older generation did, the older generation being myself. I was raised on a farm. There was always something to work on. Your first car was an old car that you had to work on constantly. You had shop classes that you took, and you just don't see that in schools. You don't see that at home, and I think that it trickles down that they're just not as interested in mechanical aspects of what's out there," Hasty said.

Birt said a good locksmith technician is mechanically inclined and can adapt to situations. But many younger people aren't willing to learn the trade, he said.

"The problem I see right now is kids out there really don't know how much fun this job is. It is fun. I've been doing it for 45 years. I think it's great. People that get into it stay a long time. Kids are not getting the opportunity in school."

To become a locksmith, one needs to work at a shop and be trained daily through a four- or five-year program in the shop.

"It's just like any other trade. You don't become a bricklayer in a year. It's just like going to college, only it's hands-on, and you get paid for it instead of having to pay for it," Birt said.

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