30 Under 30: Jay Ricciardi

This is my third interview with a locksmith for the “30 under 30” series and this is the first one conducted with one who is an employee and not the business owner. Jay Ricciardi works for Ed Fitzgerald, owner of Arnold’s Safe and Lock in Pennsauken, NJ. I’ve spoken with Jay many times while making a sales call or calling on the phone to speak with Ed. He’s always impressed me as a pleasant young man with a good sense of humor. Here is the conversation Jay and I had with my tape recorder running on June 17, 2008.

How long have you worked here and how’d you get started?
I’ve been here three years. I was working at a local machine shop and wanted to move on. I didn’t do much machining but had an idea of what it was like to work with the kind of precision needed in locksmithing.

How did you wind up here? Did you answer an ad or know about it already?
It was somewhere in the back of my mind but if it weren’t for a friend of a friend suggesting that I come here and apply, I probably never would have tried. I didn’t figure there was anyone looking to hire someone who knew nothing about locksmithing but I came in one day and spoke with Ed and that was that.

What made you think locksmithing might work out for you?
I didn’t figure it out right away but I enjoy the brain work involved. I like the fact that you have to think a lot about what you’re doing. At first I was just looking to get out of where I was and it was by chance that it worked out.

I’ve always described this work as a great mix of working with your hands and your mind. Were you somewhat handy to that point?
Yeah, slightly, but I’m a whole lot more handy now than I was then. I never thought I’d be doing something like this right out of high school; I didn’t think I was capable of it.

What did you think a locksmith did before you showed up here?
I had no clue; I would have said they cut keys. The first day I started I still had no clue. When I got here, we were cutting a lot of safe deposit keys for a job so I began by doing that. After that I did things as they came up. Pinning Schlage cylinders is something I did early on.

Marty Arnold (original owner) and Ed and Harry and the others are all very good and knowledgeable locksmiths so you were fortunate to begin here. Considering you had no other shop to compare this one to, how do you feel about working with these guys?
It’s great because if a customer comes in with something new to me, I know someone else here will know about it. Between the two who are here, there isn’t much they don’t know.

What’s a typical day like for you now?
 I’m working in the shop answering the phone, waiting on customers. If there’s a project to be done like a master key system or cutting 150 keys for somebody, then I do that.

Do you enjoy working with customers?
Yeah, I do. I enjoy the face to face and the small talk that happens. I enjoy helping to solve a problem when it’s something I know. It feels good to help somebody. Just like I was clueless when I started, a lot of people are when they come in or call.

Locksmithing is no longer about just keys and locks. Electronics are a much bigger part of the industry. Is that something you’re working with here?
Not that much because I’m not installing it. I have been to a few classes like the one Keri Systems offers. I’m very interested in the whole computer part of it. We don’t do that much of it and when we do, it’s not me doing the installation. When you learn it in a classroom, you don’t remember much in six months if you haven’t actually done it. We just don’t have that much of a call for it yet.

How do you see your future in this industry? What would you like to see happen? Do you see locksmithing being a way to accomplish what you want to in your life?
To just keep learning as much as I possibly can and to keep moving up. I do see locksmithing helping me in my life as long as I could do it the way I’d like to, whatever way that may be. I’d like to keep it going the way it is because I still have a lot to learn.

Give me an example of what you’d like to learn more about.
Masterkeying is easy now and I’m impressioning and picking locks. It’s the stuff I’ve never done, like installing an electric strike. I have no clue how because I’ve never done it. I see myself being given the chance eventually.

How do you think the public sees locksmithing in general?
When people hear I’m a locksmith, they think I have car-opening tools in my trunk. People think it’s like magic. They need the locks changed on their house and they think I could do it without having the right tools, etc. with me.

Do you remember the first time you were successful at impressioning and how it felt?
I think it was a Ford pin tumbler or a Chrysler because they mark real well and it felt great, like a great accomplishment. I went out to do a car once which I normally don’t do because I’m in the shop, and impressioned it in about 15 minutes and it felt great.

Do you continue to practice? What’s different now than when you first started here?
I do practice but to be honest we have less people here now and I have less time for it. I did get good at it because I practiced whenever I could. A whole lot of steering columns come in here so I do get to do it often enough.

Do you have particular work that tends to be yours here?
Not really. When there’s a large project like a master key system, Harry would do it because he’s so much quicker at it than I am. He’s been here for many years and has pretty much trained me to this point. For the most part, if you wait on a person, then you do the job. It’s much rarer now for me to not be able to do what comes in over the counter. Same thing with the phone; you talk to them then you do it.

Is the importance of how we answer the phone underrated?
Yes, I have learned that. When I first started I wasn’t too good at getting all the right information because I didn’t know yet what was important. I’m better now; I make sure I get things like a full name, address and phone number and ask them to be as specific as possible about what they need. Now it’s a routine and it’s set in my brain. I don’t get real specific with getting the manufacturer of the locks because they usually won’t know anyway.

It can be tough to get information from customers. What kind of responses do you get when asking people about their car?
They have no idea what year the car is and that boggles my mind every time. It could be an 1985 or a 2005 and they don’t have a clue. Most people don’t even give you the model when you ask for a year and model over the phone.

You mentioned earlier that you enjoy things computer related. Was this an interest of yours before you began as a locksmith?
Yes, I went to a business school for web design and I did the web site for Arnold’s here. I’m interested in technology in general. I’m intrigued by the biometric and retina scan technology but you could see it’s not going to be a hot seller until the kinks are worked out and the prices come down.

Do you feel like an important part of what goes on here?
Not as important as I’d like to be but I understand why. I’m working with a bunch of guys that have all been here for at least 15 years and I’ve been here for only three.

Since you wait on customers and answer the phones, you’re the face of the company to many people. How do you think that’s gone so far?
It’s gone well; I’ve adjusted to the customer service thing well, I think. Again, for some reason I enjoy the face to face more than the phone. The phone is different; it’s hard to communicate the way you can in person.

Did you have any mechanical background or have people in your home growing up that worked with their hands?
My dad’s handy; he’s not Bob Villa but he’s OK. I didn’t do it much and never thought I’d be doing something for a living where I would be using my hands like this every day.

Can you see the day when we’re not using keys any more?
Yes, eventually half the stuff we use now will be gone. If they could figure out a way, residentially, for people to not have keys at all, they’d love it. Ask any ten people if they’d rather not have to carry keys in their pocket and most will say yes. I’m not sure how long it will take but it will happen eventually. One day we’ll just be pushing buttons and reading our hands and our eyes.
Are you doing any work outside of the shop?
Not as much as I’d like. I have to be in here because I have much more responsibility than I did a couple of years ago. When we had more people here and I didn’t know as much, I’d be able to go out and watch and learn. Now I know more and I’m needed in here more.

What would you say to someone who’s considering this field?
I say give it a try because it’s not for everybody. I’ve seen several people come and go in the short time I’ve been here. Some people just aren’t smart enough and others find out they just don’t like it. For me, it’s challenging which is part of the reason I like it. If you’re not interested in being challenged then I wouldn’t even try. To do well here, you have to have an open mind and be willing to learn. You have to be willing to deal with people and swallow when certain things happen with customers.

Is it rewarding to be trusted by customers who are in trouble or needing more security in their lives?
It’s a good thing. Locksmiths should be trusted since we could get in almost anywhere.

Are you amazed at how many locksmiths are good and trustworthy people?
The ones in here are. I haven’t been around long enough to know what many others are like but I trust everyone who works here enough to leave money lying around.

Are you aware of things you’d like to learn more about that you don’t see much here?
Yeah, I read the Locksmith Ledger. I’m sure it’s kind of strange that a 25 year old locksmith reads the Locksmith Ledger; I guess I’d be considered a nerd by other 25 year olds.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to you learning as much as you’d like to?
There are obstacles everyday in the form of each lock I work on. You have a problem with a lock and it gives you a headache for a half hour and you eventually figure it out; you just learned something. Hopefully you won’t get another headache with that lock unless it’s ten years later.
How do you feel when something totally new is put in front of you to work on?
As long as I have a general idea of the basics I’m OK. Recently I started doing Sargent and Corbin IC cores. If you just put it in front of me, I don’t have a clue but if I have a sheet helping me with what pins to use for what manufacturer, then I’ll figure it out. I’m better at figuring things out with my head than I am with my hands; I’m average with my hands. As long as I have the ability to figure things out in my head, I’ll be alright.

If you had a young guy under your wing, what would you say to him?
Take your time and don’t rush anything. People have been here who weren’t meant for this job and couldn’t cut a key very well. Take your time and pay attention.

Do you still ask the more experienced guys a lot of questions?
 I still ask Harry about five a day. If I think it’s a stupid question, I’ll say “I have a stupid question.”

What would you like to convey to the older guys in this business? What should those around someone early on in their locksmith career keep in mind?
I would ask them to remember that we haven’t been doing this as long as they have. Please remember what it was like for you. If you sit them down and ask them, most could remember what it was like but not on a day- to-day basis. I’m not saying the guys in here are hard on me, but once in a while you have to remind them that, ‘You’ve been here 30 years and I’ve been here three.’

If you had to do one particular locksmithing task all the time, what would it be?
It would have to be impressioning. I know I couldn’t master key all day because that would drive me nuts. As long as I was impressioning a variety of locks all day, I wouldn’t mind. I couldn’t work in a factory on an assembly line. Ed (the owner) has sent me to five or 10 classes since I’ve been here and Mr. Arnold’s impressioning class was definitely the best. I think that may have something to do with why I like it so much; he taught it so well. His words still play in my head and it makes a big difference.  

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