Old craft seeks young workers

Pipe organ repairers likely to be in their 60s or 70s

Pipe organ repairers likely to be in their 60s or 70s

November 14, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

GREENCASTLE, PA. - Many of the people repairing the nation's 8,000 to 10,000 pipe organs are thought to be nearly as old as the 60- and 70-year-old instruments they encounter daily.

"It's an aged work force," Irv Lawless said. "There's no one new coming in."

Lawless, co-owner of Greencastle's Lawless-Johnson Organ Co., is thankful to have a 24-year-old in his four-person business.

"Trevor (Timmons) and I are out almost every day," Lawless said.

The pair are especially busy this time of year as they travel an area from Harrisburg, Pa., to Washington, D.C., to tune the massive instruments with pipes up to 40 feet tall.

"Organs go out of tune pretty much by the change of weather," Lawless said.

Lawless also travels to industry functions, where, he says, young people with training are coveted by the businesses that build, rebuild, tune, repair or supply parts for pipe organs.


"I guess it doesn't surprise me to hear that firms are facing an aging work force," said Robert R. Ebert, who prepares an annual statistical and economic analysis of the pipe organ industry for the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America and the American Institute of Organbuilders.

The larger firms in the niche industry are the ones that have been able to bring younger people into their executive ranks, Ebert said.

Rick Morrison, president of Eastern Organ Pipes Inc. of Hagerstown, finds that new, younger employees come to his 11-person pipe making and repair company with factory or machine backgrounds.

Those are the employees who generally exhibit high turnover rates.

"They just don't stay," Morrison said.

Each person new to the industry must be trained on-site, since schools don't offer educational programs in the specialized field, Morrison said.

"When you hire someone for a job, they're actually learning from a co-worker. The last person we hired got his start from an employee who was leaving," Morrison said.

Both Eastern Organ Pipes and Lawless-Johnson Organ Co. got their starts after the Mller Organ Co. of Hagerstown closed in 1992 with 100 employees, whose average age was 58. While the first modern organ was made between 1510 and 1520, their production and popularity dramatically increased in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"The fact that the Mller Co. has been gone since 1992 ... being able to tap people who actually worked in the Mller shop would be very difficult now, so you have to look forward," Morrison said.

Morrison hardly thinks concerns about the aging work force in the pipe organ industry are new.

"I think before (Mller) closed, the owners were looking at the same kind of thing," he said.

The best bet is to hire people locally for open positions, according to Morrison.

"There's not a lot of lateral movement. It seems like people are not apt to pick up and move to work in the organ business," he said.

The younger generations might actually contribute to the organ industry in another way. Research shows they are increasingly favoring traditional worship services at church, Ebert said.

The organ industry "is an industry that defines what good church music sounds like. I see the industry having a decent future," Ebert said.

"The new organ business is doing very well," Lawless said. A new pipe organ can cost as much as $1 million, he said.

While just 50 firms in the United States and Canada build or rebuild pipe organs, there are more than 200 shops for repair and tuning services.

"Old organs don't die," Ebert said. "They may get organ transplants."

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