A Lack of Instrument Repair Technicians & Tuners is Threatening Canada's Musical Instruments Industry
And There’s a Simple Fix the Federal Government Could Implement
This column was first published in the August/September 2022 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Steven Butterworth
The Canadian music product and services industry – comprised of manufacturers, distributors/wholesalers, retailers, music schools, and service technicians – is a highly specialized and unique ecosystem that supports customers to realize their dreams of learning, playing, and sharing music. What a joyful mission we all have! And so, I felt it was important to bring one pressing topic forward to share with the industry so that we can continue our important mission together. One of the biggest looming challenges is something I worry is not being addressed. That is, the number of instrument repair technicians and tuners who are retiring. Why it matters so much is because, in many cases, there is no succession plan or next generation to follow in their footsteps.
Historically, people who want to learn to repair, maintain, and tune musical instruments followed a formal or informal path, which may have involved enrolling in a musical instrument training program or an informal apprenticeship with a master technician. But the last two Canadian programs that taught wind instrument repair and piano tuning and maintenance closed within the past 10 years. Currently, any Canadian interested in this profession must leave Canada to attend programs in the United states, Asia, or Europe where there are several options to become qualified. These options can be a major up-front expense for candidates who are just beginning their career following a degree in music or other technical programs.
There might be a business model where a Canadian music company is willing to sponsor a high-potential person to go abroad for training, but that would require some processes or structures that are not in place at this time. Ideally, we would have our own school in Canada to study musical instrument repair, restoration, and tuning. However, due to the accelerating pace of technicians retiring, waiting for that to happen is very risky for the industry. This not only affects standard-level repairs and maintenance, but also the repair, tuning, and high-level fine adjustment for instruments of professional musicians and concert pianos.
As such, the most effective and quickest option is bringing qualified technicians from other countries to Canada. While Canada has a generous immigration policy in general, when it comes to importing skilled labour at various levels, there is a barrier to entry for musical instrument technicians.
The Canadian government uses something called a National Occupational Classification (NOC) to classify various levels of skilled labour. These are grouped into five skill levels (0, A, B, C, and D) based upon job duties and the actual work they do. This is the basis for their evaluation for admission to immigrate to Canada in order to work in that field.
For immigration purposes, the NOC for piano tuners/technicians and wind instrument technicians is “Level C 7445: Other Repairers and Servicers.” This classifies music instrument repair technicians alongside folks who repair cameras, scales, coin machines, vending machines, sporting goods, and other miscellaneous products and equipment.
“They are employed by product specialty repair shops and service establishments,” the Canadian government’s website notes. As such, it adds, “Level C occupations are not eligible for the skilled labour and are thus not admissible under the skilled immigrant entry program. However, they may be eligible for more precarious types of immigration; you may be able to come to Canada as a provincial nominee (all skill types/levels), you may be able to come to Canada through the Atlantic Immigration Program (skill type/level 0, A, B, or C), or you may be able to work here for up to two years.”
The obvious problem is that these other programs are not attractive to someone looking to immigrate and put down roots in a new place and enter a new career. They are perilous in that they offer no long-term security or certainty.
So, you can immigrate and work to restore the cabinet of the piano, but you cannot tune it or repair/maintain the mechanism! This is not common sense to me.
We as an industry need to come together to educate and influence our federal government and immigration policies to either loosen the eligibility for Level C occupations or elevate the NOC for instrument technicians to a level that is eligible for entry and long-term opportunities. This may mean Level B, which applies to “technical jobs and skilled trades that usually call for a college diploma or training as an apprentice, such as: chefs, plumbers, electricians.”
With this legislative change, the wave of technician immigrants would also become the foundation for stability and growth in our industry and perhaps even be the teachers and mentors for Canadians in the future. I hope this column can serve to start the conversation and perhaps serve as a rallying point for us all.
Steven Butterworth is the Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Yamaha Canada Music, overseeing the Musical Instruments, Music Education, and Pro Audio departments.