Switchmen were trained to maintain and repair equipment used in
the Step by Step and Crossbar switching systems that existed until
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved