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Bill Lobo, Switchman, trouble shooting on an SX-200 System.Switchmen were trained to maintain and repair equipment used in the Step by Step and Crossbar switching systems that existed until the 1980s.

These workers played a vital role in keeping the exchanges running, as the many moving parts in electromechanical systems often required readjustment, and could easily stick in the absence of regular care.

Some switchmen were assigned to the Private Branch Exchange (PBX) or Private Automatic Branch Exchange (PABX) located in commercial establishments. These smaller systems were similar to the larger branch exchanges, but each model and manufacturer had different specifications.

Listen! Becoming a Switchman – Mr. Alf Want
In 1919, Alf Want started his training as a switchman for the telephone exchange. He recounts some of his experiences in this clip.

Switchman on SP-1 equipment Most switchmen worked a regular day shift, with fewer workers on hand in the evening and generally only one switchman on duty at night and on weekends.

Listen! Knowing the Score – Mr. Alf Want
In the days when the famous Edmonton Grads challenged the world for basketball supremacy, the switchmen were kept hopping on game nights. On such nights, the information operator boards were overloaded with calls from people seeking the latest score, as radio was not available to make such information available to those who couldn’t attend the games. Mr. Want recalls the days when the telephone exchange workers knew the score.  Listen!

At first, they received on-the-job training over a five- or six-year apprenticeship period before being classified as journeymen. This changed in the 1960s, when classroom work was added and the apprenticeship period was shortened to four years.

Switchman. Initially, employees were sent to Calgary to complete their course work, but it was difficult for people with mortgages and other responsibilities to cover their living expenses so far from home. By way of a response, training was soon offered in Edmonton at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) as well, beginning in 1966.

When digital equipment was introduced, switchmen were required to learn new skills. Equipment suppliers provided the necessary training on their systems, adding the associated cost to the installation estimate.

Listen! Duties of a Switchman – Mr. Alf Want
Keeping telephone exchanges running smoothly, without signal interference or power loss, was the duty of the telephone switchman. Alf Want, a former switchman, describes some of the responsibilities of his trade. Listen!

They could either conduct this training on-site, or perhaps in Eastern Canada where selected workers would pick up the skills in hopes of teaching others back in Alberta.

Today, switchmen are called central office technicians.

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