Saturday, December 21, 2013

Shortage of ice technicians threatens the game

By request, here is my story from the most recent edition of the Ontario Curling Report on the looming crisis in curling -- the shortage of ice technicians. 


Curling crisis: Who is going to make the ice?

By Bob Weeks

In the market for a new job? Here’s one for you: It has long, irregular hours, you have to work in the cold and the pay is average at best. You hear from your clients regularly, usually when they blame their faults on your handiwork. But on the plus side, you do get the summers off.
Doesn’t quite sound like your dream job? You’re not alone. Across the country and especially in Ontario, there is a shortage of qualified ice technicians, the folks who flood and pebble and scrape your curling ice. The long hours and low pay have combined to chase people away from careers on the curling ice to the point where the potential for a drastic shortage in qualified individuals is looming. Right now, if you have a good, young ice technician in your club, then he or she is worth his or her weight in gold.
“It’s definitely a chaotic life,” admitted Dave Padgett, who tends to the sheets at the Bayview Country Club in Toronto and has been making ice since the late 1960s. “It’s not for everyone. But in the next few years, as guys retire, it’s going to be a problem if something isn’t done.”
“Dishwashers make more than ice technicians if you look at it on a per hour basis,” added Don Powell, who teaches ice making courses for the Ontario Curling Association as well as looking after the playing surface at the Weston Golf & Country Club and at major provincial and national championships.
The problem is one that’s apparent in the industry. Both the OCA and the Canadian Curling Association have been looking at ways to attract more people to the business but so far haven’t been able to come up with any solutions.
“There’s a definite shortage,” said Danny Lamoureux, the head of curling club development for the CCA. “We’ve known that for a couple of years.”
Lamoureux highlighted a couple of examples of the problem that made their way to the association’s office. A club that was advertising for a new icemaker received applications from six people. The club contacted the CCA to verify the experience of the six. Not one was known to anyone at the Ottawa national office or local curling officials. Six applicants, none qualified.
In another situation, a club in Saskatchewan advertised for an ice technician with the job including subsidized housing as well as a guaranteed employment in the summer months.
Not one application was received.
The reasons the industry has failed to attract newcomers are plentiful. First up, the hours can be long and tedious. Powell said for his work, he arrives at the club two hours before the first draw to prepare the ice, which means a 7:30 start for a 9:30 game. And his day ends when the 9 p.m. draw takes to the sheets meaning close to a 14-hour day.
His work varies between busy periods where he’s scraping or pebbling, and times when he’s waiting for curlers to finish their games.
“The schedule changes a bit but there aren’t any days at our club when there isn’t any curling. It’s seven days a week, ” he said, acknowledging he has a part-time staff that helps make the workload manageable.
The duties of an ice technician vary from club to club, depending on how busy a certain facility is, how many sheets there are and how many players. Some clubs have moved to volunteers to care for the ice, a trend that worries the community of ice technicians, more for the inconsistent and possibly unplayable conditions that result than the effect on paid jobs.
“It’s not good for curling,” said Padgett, a second-generation ice technician. “But what are these clubs going to do? There’s just no money.”
That’s the second problem. Ice technicians are not paid all that well. While there are some at private clubs that can draw a decent salary, most just eke out a living or need to supplement their curling work with other duties.
Doug Bakes, the general manager of the Ontario Curling Association, estimates that about a third of the roughly 200 clubs in the province have a full time ice technician, which includes those who are employed seasonally and some who are given other jobs at a facility when the curling season is over, such as on a golf course.
This summer, there were 16 jobs that opened up for one reason or another; it caused a shuffle of ice techs from club to club to club and left a few position unfilled. In those cases either volunteers pick up the slack or an ice tech may end up taking over more than one club. In all cases, services get stretched and conditions suffered.
If there is one trend seen by those taking up the pebbling can, it’s the number of retired people getting into the business. At an OCA clinic in the fall, there were nine participants: eight were retired from various careers.
“The new people coming into the job tend to be retired folks, who are looking for a way to supplement their income in retirement,” said Bakes. “That’s good but we would still like to get younger folks in [the job].”
Powell said that while he’s seen a number of younger people start down the path to a career as an ice technician, many give up the business when they see the hours and the compensation.
Padgett agreed and added that it’s a tough work schedule for those with a family.
“I know one young guy in the business who said that he never sees his kids because he leaves for work before they get up and comes home after they’ve gone to bed,” he stated. “It’s a hard life if you have kids.”
There don’t seem to be any easy answers to getting more people into the business although the CCA is looking at options, as is the OCA.
Ontario currently runs clinics ranging from a Level I, which covers the basics, up to Level III that deals with the intricacies of everything to do with ice and rocks.
“Level 1 courses are jam-packed,” said Powell. “In fact we turn people away. Level 2 there is a significant drop off, nowhere near as many and for level 3, again another big drop off.
“I also see the same clubs sending a different person to level 1 year after year.”
Those tend to be volunteers, Powell said.
With so few people getting into the business the future is downright scary. Padgett predicts that it might become a bidding war as clubs that have financial resources scramble to get qualified individuals. That doesn’t mean the pay will go up significantly, Padgett predicted. That will take time.
“I’ve been talking to the OCA for a long time about the problem,” he said. “I think they should hire a qualified guy to go around and work at each club with the staff for a few days. At least that would help with the conditions.”
Both Bakes and Lamoureux acknowledge that this is a problem without any easy answers.
“The CCA has some ideas on how to attract people into the job as a career,” said Lamoureux. “We’re targeting younger people. We’ve also been talking to a lot of golf people to see how superintendents attract people as well as if they can combine jobs.”
Bakes said the OCA is looking at a re-vamp of the ice technicians’ courses as a way to assist. But he knows the situation has no quick solutions.
Both associations spend a lot of money on coaching and on improving players, but without good ice, it won’t matter how good the curlers are. It’s a problem that needs attention. Now.

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