It became clear to him on stage minutes before the start of a Christmas concert where he was performing with the Omaha Symphony.
Jason DeWater, who played principal horn for the symphony, set down his centuries-old instrument and put a damaged iPhone in front of the sheet music on his stand. Pulling one of the tiny screwdrivers he always carries with him out of the front pocket of his white jacket, DeWater went to work on the second horn’s phone — one of the 50 million mobile devices that get damaged every year in the United States.
DeWater soon realized he was in the wrong line of work.
“I’m a musician working with these folks, and they saw more value in me as someone who could fix their phone. They needed that and so did the rest of the city,” said DeWater, the founder of iFixOmaha, an independent electronics repair shop with four locations in the Omaha area and goals for regional expansion. “I didn’t have any business background at all, but device repair created a path to entrepreneurship for me.”
DeWater is sharing his path to a new career with Metropolitan Community College (MCC) students this spring. He and other industry-certified professionals from iFixOmaha are involved in training students at the Nebraska college interested in the relatively new field, hoping they will work their way to employment with his company, or to compete against it — he’s really 100% okay with the latter.
A new kind of academy
From the newly renovated MCC Digital Express on the Fort Omaha Campus, MCC launched its new Mobile Device Repair Academy this spring, a first-ever offering at a community college nationwide. Provided in partnership with the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the national trade organization for the wireless industry, and iFixOmaha, the MCC Mobile Device Repair Academy is a credentialing program that includes a one-week boot camp. An eight-week internship follows that can lead to a job offer at program completion. Participants who finish the boot camp earn two Wireless Industry Service Excellence (WISE) certifications.
“There’s a significant market need for mobile device repair, and MCC is thrilled to partner with CTIA and iFixOmaha to be able to offer this first-of-its-kind program,” said Gary Girard, MCC vice president for community and workforce education.
A major benefit of the noncredit program is that it will provide a resource to the greater Omaha community for mobile device repair at cost. The general public can bring their malfunctioning devices, like smartphones, tablets and laptops, to Reboot Central, the technology support service desk at MCC Digital Express. Reboot Central will be staffed by MCC students who have completed the boot camp and earned WISE Level 1 and 2 certifications. Repairs will be supervised by WISE-authorized training administrators with iFixOmaha.
“The commitment of our partners makes it possible for our students to benefit from valuable training that can help them enter a technology career with exceptional growth potential, while offering our community access to low-cost device repair,” Girard said.
In addition to hands-on training fixing broken devices, participants will also gain customer service skills, which are important when meeting with clients who may be stressed when they bring their devices in for repair.
“The internship piece is what makes the program truly unique, providing immediately employable workers to the regional workforce,” Girard said. “By the completion of the program, students will demonstrate the technical skills and the soft skills needed to work in a professional mobile device repair shop.”
Setting the standard
CTIA established the WISE certification program in 2019 after years of coordinated efforts by more than 50 organizations across the spectrum of the wireless industry to establish a standard for employee training and best practices for mobile device repair.
WISE certification ensures that consumers have a predictable, high-quality repair experience. It also provides access to careers in a $4 billion industry for people who complete the program. Level 1 certification is knowledge-based, and an online test covers topics such as an introduction to the smartphone and the evolution of the mobile repair industry; safety and best practices; common repair terms/conditions; tools and equipment; device features and characteristics; anatomy of a mobile device; the device intake and inspection process; and common mobile defects and repair methods.
Level 2 certification moves on to practical skills, which includes hands-on learning with real devices and repairing real-world problems like broken screens, buttons and charge ports. The Level 2 exam is in-person and requires the candidate to successfully diagnose the problem, fix it and put the device back together again in one working piece.
Before an industry standard was established for mobile device repair, consumers didn’t have access to a reputable service.
“The phone manufacturers didn’t want local yokels like me opening up these beautiful devices and possibly damaging them,” DeWater said. “There were no support mechanisms for someone who wanted to fix a phone, and in the beginning, sourcing parts and tools to make the repairs involved going through strange channels.”
The start of a sector
DeWater said an online community of phone mechanics emerged with the creation of fix-it websites filled with user-generated content for sharing tools and information for making repairs.
“We were basically creating guides for one another, usually destroying our own phones in the process,” DeWater said.
As self-trained technicians began to open physical storefronts, DeWater said it created the need for industry standards for device repair. Repair shops needed to build relationships in the industry to give their businesses credibility. About six years ago, that led to the first conversations around certification, bringing competitors from within the wireless industry together to develop a shared service model.
“Independent shop owners like myself wanted to gain the trust of manufacturers and carriers — that we were legitimate businesses that could be trusted to do a good job for their brand and their customers,” DeWater said. “The beautiful thing about WISE certification is it took the greatest hits from all these companies’ practices and made one document as the basis for running your repair operation, training your people and doing it properly.”
DeWater said starting pay for WISE-certified technicians at iFixOmaha is $18/hour. As a retention tool, technicians often work their way into earning contracts for salaried positions once they establish themselves with an independent shop. Some follow DeWater’s path and open their own businesses.
“The industry and opportunities are growing, especially for independent brands,” DeWater said. “I feel like this certification program is as much of an entrepreneurship course as it is a tech training course.”