Institutional Locksmithing: Ready When You Are

Jan. 1, 2008
The more commercial experience that a locksmith can glean, the better chances of qualifying for a government or institutional locksmith position. Usually an employer is not interested in residential or car-opening experience. Safe and vault work is a plus, but the mainstay of institutional duties is commercial locks, exit devices, and keying systems.

Here has never been more of an opportunity to become an institutional locksmith. The number of government agencies, institutions and companies employing locksmiths full-time has greatly increased. As baby boomers, many institutional locksmiths are retiring or reaching retirement age.

Institutional locksmiths are locksmiths who are dedicated to and permanently employed by: schools and colleges; local, state, and federal agencies; hospitals and medical facilities; facilities and maintenance companies; aerospace and defense contractors; private security providers; and corporations.

However, converting to institutional locksmithing isn't for everybody. In fact, some locksmiths do not enjoy the repetitive nature of working for one customer. The same persons scoff at having to punch a clock and having to show up on time every day.

What has attracted many persons to locksmithing in the first place is the ability to work for yourself, to make your own hours, to choose your own customers.

Others are attracted to the consistency and the stability of knowing that there is work available for as long as they want it. The same persons are attracted to the ability to get a pension, in most cases before fifty, if they start out early enough in life.

For those locksmiths that want to give it a try, there are plenty of jobs available so pick your prospective employer carefully.


It hasn't been that long ago that carpenters performed the work normally done by locksmiths for their employers. This is because most locks used by employers were basic: either mounting on the surface of or mortised within wooden doors and cabinets. This required “carpentry” or the preparation of wood, so naturally lock installation was assigned to carpenters. As carpenter unions formalized, the installation of locks and door closers appeared in static job descriptions.

With the advent of steel doors and cabinets, employers found carpenters resistive to lock installations where metal preparation was required. When locks were mounted onto metal: metal-workers, mill-wrights, and machinists were given the task.

As locks became more complicated to install, employers called upon outside resources such as locksmiths to perform installations correctly. Through the constant repetition of calling out locksmiths, some employers found it cost-effective to out-and-out hire the locksmith full-time.

There is always a hierarchy within union trades. Usually carpenters, electricians, and plumbers are at the top of the food chain. It seemed natural to assign supervision of a locksmith to the carpenter shop. This is why so many trade organizations today have the locksmith reporting to the carpenter. Union locksmith wages tend to parallel carpenter wages because of this relationship.

In the 1960s, as the cold war geared up, there was a need to protect governmental secrets and innovations. Defense and aerospace companies that did business with the government were required to protect their efforts with specialized locks.

These types of employers preferred that locksmiths be supervised by their security departments. Because of their specialized services, it was not uncommon for the locksmiths to be employees of the company rather than union personnel. This was especially handy during period of strike when locksmiths could lock out union personnel without conflict of interest. This also allowed locksmiths to be properly “vetted” (per government regulations) as union restrictions often clashed with some of the stringent requirements necessary to process a clearance.

Modern-day institutional locksmiths can be assigned to facility or security departments, depending on the need of the company.

Today there is a heightened awareness regarding security. Electronic access is the order of the day; patented keying systems are standard; and everything is getting locked up.

It is a good time to be an institutional locksmith as demand has sky-rocketed and jobs are everywhere.


As a trade, institutional locksmithing is in its infancy. The first persons that started the trade have recently retired or are thinking about it. Most of these persons are part of the “Baby Boom,” resulting in more vacancies created and not enough persons to fill them. There aren't enough qualified locksmiths to fill all the available positions.

Employers are also finding it difficult to get locksmiths to apply for the vacancies; as the wages are insufficient. Trade locksmith positions have not kept up as other trades have as their outside union support is weak. Consider that electricians, carpenters, and plumbers have strong union representation outside of the employer. Employee wages usually are relative to prevailing union wages.

Currently employers are in a predicament as wages offered do not entice locksmiths to apply for jobs. Their only recourse is to raise wages. This is another incentive for locksmiths to make the move to institutional careers.


Locksmiths who want to become institutional locksmiths should choose their future employer carefully. Because of an abundance of vacancies, locksmiths should choose an employer offering a comprehensive package of benefits.

Institutional work is predictable, consistent, and safe.

Important benefits are: medical, dental, and vision plans; retirement and pension programs; 401k thrift savings and deferred compensation plans; life insurance; long-term disability insurance; and time off with pay. Medical, dental, and vision plans can vary significantly. Good plans have the employer paying most of the expense with the employee pay a modest amount and small co-pays.

By the nature of institutional locksmithing, the employee plans to stay until retirement. The employer should offer retirement and pension programs that allow the employee to retire without financial difficulty. Great plans offer medical coverage (with modest monthly fees) while being retired.

There are many employers that offer savings plans and will contribute portions to it. With the right employer, locksmiths can enjoy all the major holidays, vacation, and sick time.

Institutional locksmiths have regular hours. Assignments can be planned with predictable results. There is less emergency work and more work that improves the employer's process.

Institutional locksmiths are required to follow all safety guidelines and requirements. The employer is required to issue personal safety equipment and gear. Areas are made safe before locksmiths begin their work. Wage-earning locksmiths are more likely to work safer than their street counter-parts where the time it takes to do a job is a priority.


Employers are generally looking for “journeyman” level experience when hiring a locksmith. This means one who has fully served an apprenticeship in a trade or craft and is a qualified worker in another's employ. Certifications from associations and acknowledged locksmith schools help verify this experience level.

Usually employers will state how much experience is necessary to meet a minimum qualification. Often this is how long the locksmith has worked for others. Employers will offer a job description as to what they believe a locksmith should be capable of doing.

Here is a typical job description relating to institutional locksmith: “Installs, maintains and repairs lock systems and related equipment; installs all types of locks and lock hardware and performs the carpentry or metal-working necessary for such installation; adjusts, maintains, repairs, and replaces door locks, padlocks, tumbler locks, and various other lock hardware such as panic bars, door checks, latches, catches, fasteners, and door closers; establishes and maintains master key systems; opens locks which cannot be opened by ordinary means; operates machine tools such as key-cutting machine, drill press, grinder, hand drill, electric drill, and electrical hammer to duplicate keys and change locks; selects key blanks, cuts keys, and fits keys to locks; issues keys and locks and keeps related records; responsible for maintaining, supporting, and promoting a safe work environment while complying with all of safety rules, policies, and procedures; and performs other related duties.”

Typically locksmiths that work for lock shops will perform residential, automotive, and commercial lock work and sometimes specialized work like safe and vault servicing or openings.

The more commercial experience that a locksmith can glean, the better chances of qualifying for an institutional locksmith position. When filling out work experience on an application for institutional locksmith, this should be mentioned. If the locksmiths experiences fall mostly in the residential or automotive range work experience should be noted on the application in a more general manner.

For instance, let's say a locksmith worked four years at a lock shop mostly installing deadbolts on homes and performing auto lock repairs and openings. The locksmith would be better served as listing duties as: “Installing, maintaining, repairing lock systems and related equipment.”

If a locksmith worked four years at a lock shop mostly on commercial locking hardware, the locksmith would best be served at listing his duties as: “Specialist: installing maintaining, and repairing, all types of institutional and commercial locking hardware.”

Usually an employer is not interested in residential or car-opening experience. Safe and vault work is a plus, but the mainstay of institutional duties is commercial locks, exit devices, and keying systems.


Certain employers have special needs: hospitals for instance, fall under the scrutiny of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). HIPAA monitors the privacy of medical records and how they are handled and JCAHO sets standards and inspects hospital facilities for compliance.

Locksmiths looking for institutional locksmith positions at hospitals have an edge if they are experience with HIPAA guidelines and JCAHO regulations.

Locksmiths who possess governmental clearances go straight to the top of the list if they are applying for jobs that require a clearance. Clearances are so coveted that companies will offer locksmith training to persons leaving military service with their clearances intact.

It behooves the locksmith to investigate the employer and find out what certifications and qualifications will be of interest to the employer.

For instance an employer might be looking for someone that can manage an extensive key control program. The locksmith should find out what types of keys are used, learn everything there is to know about the key types, and mention that special knowledge in a resume or application.

Additionally, you can bet that knowledge on how to implement the program is valuable. The keys may be controlled through a proprietary program or a familiar database application like “ Filemaker Pro” or “Microsoft Access.” Working knowledge of the implementing program is important to the employer.

What separates institutional locksmithing from other trades is the amount of computer literacy that is required. The day in which keys were controlled on 3x5 cards has long past. Employers expect that locksmiths have some knowledge of databases.

What is the number one database application that most people use? Microsoft Excel. Most people are not aware that Excel is a database application. A spreadsheet is a database.

Locksmiths can use experience with Excel to substitute special requirements relating to database application knowledge.

Employers are also looking for locksmiths that are self-starters. Locksmithing to employers is arcane and hard-to-understand which translates to difficult to supervise or provide over site.

Locksmiths that have had special experiences managing large or time-intensive projects should always mention this on applications. It is an indicator to employers that you are self-starting and capable of operating with a minimum of supervision.


Most employers have a formal hiring process that involves six steps: application review; written exam; performance test; appraisal interview; background check; and physical qualification.

Usually a representative from Human Resources will review applications for minimum requirements and qualifications. Requirements might be associated with location, valid driver's license, and no criminal record. Qualifications relate to work experience and education (for locksmiths usually graduation from high school).

Written examinations are given to qualify a person's general knowledge of locksmithing and specific knowledge of those things that are of interest to the employer (i.e. for a hospital questions pertaining to HIPAA or JCAHO). Usually these examinations are graded and scored.

Expect to see questions relating to: ADA requirements; fire and life safety codes; handing of doors; combination of interchangeable cores; master keying; and function of locksets.

Those who pass the written will be allowed to participate in a performance test. In general performance test are designed to monitor the applicant's ability to apply locksmith technique relating to: installation; replacement; and repair.

Applicants may be asked to install a deadbolt from scratch. A proctor will observe: the compliance with the installation instructions furnished by the manufacturer; that the applicant performs the installation safely; and that the installation is performed in a timely manner.

Applicants may be asked to rekey cylinders or recombinate cores. Locks and padlocks may be provided that need to be picked open in a timely manner. The applicant may be asked to impression keys or cut keys by code.

Sometimes included in the performance test is adjustment of door closers. Proctors observe that the locksmith is familiar with all the different controls that are provided with the door closer including: power adjustment; sweep speed; latch speed; back check; and delay.

Performance tests are graded and scored. Applicants are rated by an aggregate score and in that order may be asked to an appraisal interview.

It is common that the appraisal interview takes place in front of two or more persons. During the interview the applicant will be asked situational questions and asked how the applicant would react in that situation. Questions are posed relating to the applicant's ability to perform or work experiences. Usually the applicant is allowed to make a statement at the end of the appraisal interview.

Those applicants that pass the appraisal interview undergo a background check. This check varies depending on the security nature of the job or the culture of the employer. Most employers will check: the driving record, credit history, arrest records, work history, places of residence, references and referrals.

After an applicant has been selected, and accepts the job, the final step is to qualify the applicant physically. A basic physical is done and in most cases a pre-employment drug test is performed.