DeWater brings expertise to MCC Mobile Device Repair Academy, a first-of-its kind program in a community college nationwide.
DeWater brings expertise to MCC Mobile Device Repair Academy, a first-of-its kind program in a community college nationwide.
It became clear to him on stage minutes before the start of a Christmas concert where he was performing with the Omaha Symphony.
Jason DeWater, who played Principal Horn for the Symphony, set down his centuries old instrument and put a damaged iPhone in front of the sheet music on his stand. Pulling one of the tiny screwdrivers he always carries with him out of the front pocket of his white jacket, DeWater went to work on the Second Horn’s phone — one of the 50 million mobile devices that get damaged every year in the United States.
DeWater soon realized he was in the wrong line of work.
“I’m a musician working with these folks, and they saw more value in me as someone who could fix their phone. They needed that and so did the rest of the city,” said DeWater, the founder of iFixOmaha, an independent electronics repair shop with four locations in the Omaha area and goals for regional expansion. “I didn’t have any business background at all, but device repair created a path to entrepreneurship for me.”
DeWater is sharing his path to a new career with Metropolitan Community College students this spring. He and other industry-certified professionals from iFixOmaha are involved in training MCC students interested in the relatively new field, hoping they will work their way to employment with his company, or to compete against it — he’s really 100% okay with the latter.
From the newly renovated MCC Digital Express (Building 10) on the Fort Omaha Campus, MCC launched its new Mobile Device Repair Academy this spring, a first-ever offering at a community college nationwide. Provided in partnership with the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the national trade organization for the wireless industry, and iFixOmaha, the MCC Mobile Device Repair Academy is a credentialing program that includes a one-week boot camp. An eight-week internship follows that can lead to a job offer at program completion. Participants who finish the Boot Camp earn two Wireless Industry Service Excellence (WISE) certifications.
“There’s a significant market need for mobile device repair, and MCC is thrilled to partner with CTIA and iFixOmaha to be able to offer this first-of-its-kind program,” said Gary Girard, MCC vice president for Community and Workforce Education.
A major benefit of the noncredit program is that it will provide a resource to the greater Omaha community for mobile device repair at cost. The general public can bring their malfunctioning devices, like smartphones, tablets and laptops, to Reboot Central, the technology support service desk at MCC Digital Express. Reboot Central will be staffed by MCC students who have completed the Boot Camp and earned WISE Level 1 and 2 certifications. Repairs will be supervised by WISE-authorized training administrators with iFixOmaha.
“The commitment of our partners makes it possible for our students to benefit from valuable training that can help them enter a technology career with exceptional growth potential, while offering our community access to low-cost device repair,” Girard said.
In addition to hands-on training fixing broken devices, participants will also gain customer service skills, which are important when meeting with clients who may be stressed when they bring their devices in for repair.
“The internship piece is what makes the program truly unique, providing immediately employable workers to the regional workforce,” Girard said.
“By the completion of the program, students will demonstrate the technical skills and the soft skills needed to work in a professional mobile device repair shop.”
Setting the standard
The WISE certification program was established in 2019 by CTIA after years of coordinated efforts by more than 50 organizations across the spectrum of the wireless industry to establish a standard for employee training and best practices for mobile device repair.
WISE certification ensures that consumers have a predictable, high-quality repair experience. It also provides access to careers in a $4 billion industry for people who complete the program. Level 1 certification is knowledge-based, and an online test covers topics such as an introduction to the smartphone and the evolution of the mobile repair industry; safety and best practices; common repair terms/conditions; tools and equipment; device features and characteristics; anatomy of a mobile device; the device intake and inspection process; and common mobile defects and repair methods.
Level 2 certification moves on to practical skills, which includes hands-on learning with real devices and repairing real-world problems like broken screens, buttons and charge ports. The Level 2 exam is in-person and requires the candidate to successfully diagnose the problem, fix it and put the device back together again in one working piece.
Before an industry standard was established for mobile device repair, consumers didn’t have access to a reputable service.
“The phone manufacturers didn’t want local yokels like me opening up these beautiful devices and possibly damaging them,” DeWater said.
“There were no support mechanisms for someone who wanted to fix a phone, and in the beginning, sourcing parts and tools to make the repairs involved going through strange channels.”
DeWater said an online community of phone mechanics emerged with the creation of fix-it websites filled with user-generated content for sharing tools and information for making repairs.
“We were basically creating guides for one another, usually destroying our own phones in the process,” DeWater said.
As self-trained technicians began to open physical storefronts, DeWater said it created the need for industry standards for device repair. Repair shops needed to build relationships in the industry to give their businesses credibility. About six years ago, that led to the first conversations around certification, bringing competitors from within the wireless industry together to develop a shared service model.
“Independent shop owners like myself wanted to gain the trust of manufacturers and carriers — that we were legitimate businesses that could be trusted to do a good job for their brand and their customers,” DeWater said. “The beautiful thing about WISE certification is it took the greatest hits from all these companies’ practices and made one document as the basis for running your repair operation, training your people and doing it properly.”
Michelle James, CTIA vice president, Strategic Industry Programs, said there was good synergy for bringing the WISE certification into an educational setting.
“The wireless industry is committed to training and expanding access to in-demand careers in wireless technology,” James said. “We’re proud to be partnering with MCC and CTIA member, iFixOmaha, to introduce this first-of-its-kind academic training for the repair industry.”
Path to entrepreneurship
DeWater was fascinated with the iPhone, first released in 2007, referring to the device as “alien technology.” On a visit to Louisiana to see his in-laws in 2010, he and his brother-in-law, Matt Arceneaux, who was also an iPhone fanatic, snuck away to a store to buy their first ones, the iPhone4.
Years later, when Matt was in the hospital battling cancer, he dropped his phone from his bed and the earpiece speaker broke.
On the way to a return visit over Christmas, on a whim, DeWater stopped at a phone repair shop in Dallas to see if he could buy a replacement earpiece speaker. After purchasing one, he started taking his phone apart on the counter.
“The workers were looking at me nervously like, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I told them I didn’t know what I was doing but was trying to learn so I didn’t break Matt’s phone when I tried to fix it,” DeWater said. “In the end, I was able to fix his earpiece, and he was able to use his phone again.”
It was an obsession they shared until Arceneaux passed in March 2012.
After successfully fixing Arceneaux’s phone, DeWater knew he had discovered a skill with income potential, but he didn’t know how he was going to be able to fit it into his life. He also knew child care and health insurance costs were greater than his income as a musician and understood there was a need for a service he could provide.
In 2011, he turned his basement into a phone repair lab.
“I put an ad out on Craigslist and said I’ll fix your phone. I couldn’t believe it, and I’m not even kidding, it was overnight that people were coming to my house seven days a week. No one else was fixing phones at that time. A lot of people didn’t even know you could fix them,” DeWater said. “Originally, I worked on the software side of the phones, but then I started seeing everyone just needed to fix their broken devices, and that’s where I started to focus. I saw this was something I could train people to do.”
Word of mouth about his service spread quickly. Customers grew from individuals to school districts, law enforcement and businesses. He started meeting people interested in learning his skill set. After fixing the phone of a 15-year-old boy who lived in his neighborhood, he recruited him to help, teaching him how to repair screens, dock ports and batteries for $15 per device.
Within months, four to six technicians worked from his home on any given day. It was time to move out of the basement.
DeWater opened his first iFixOmaha store in 2012. A little over a decade and three additional locations later (his fourth store opened in Orchard West in March), his startup has been recognized each of the past six years with awards for best smartphone repair in Omaha.
One of the only things that has limited the company since opening its doors is the availability of a skilled workforce to support its growth.
“Throughout the years, we’ve attempted to scale out of Omaha, and the one thing that always stifles our growth is staffing — having properly skilled technicians,” DeWater said. “Certification is tremendously valuable for this career because it ensures the job candidate has done the prerequisite work to be employed at any of the leading companies in this industry. That means higher starting pay because they’ll come in with state-of-the-art knowledge for fixing today’s smartphones.”
DeWater said completing the MCC Mobile Device Repair Academy will also be the new standard for working at iFixOmaha.
“This program has the potential to turn people into entrepreneurs overnight,” DeWater said. “We’re going to contract students coming out of this program to work for iFixOmaha, but they can also open their own business.”
Local training for regional growth
DeWater said starting pay for WISE-certified technicians at iFixOmaha is $18/hour. As a retention tool, technicians often work their way into earning contracts for salaried positions once they establish themselves with an independent shop. Some follow DeWater’s path and open their own businesses.
“The industry and opportunities are growing, especially for independent brands,” DeWater said. “I feel like this certification program is as much of an entrepreneurship course as it is a tech training course.”
When DeWater shared his vision for the next chapter of iFixOmaha with MCC project partners, he talked about providing a low-cost repair service on the Fort Omaha Campus. At Reboot Central, there is no charge for labor to make repairs or markup on parts. DeWater said one of the most common phone performance issues is also one of the simplest fixes. When a device slows down and starts to lag, usually after around two years, replacing the battery can extend the life of the phone for two more years.
“At Reboot Central, we’re going to do battery replacement drives at cost, and 15 minutes later, it will be like a brand-new phone again. I think that’s going to be a very positive impact on the community. We’re going to find a use for devices that people have ruled out,” DeWater said.
Making technology more accessible to all is something he believes in.
“These devices deserve to be in as many hands as possible because they unlock the future for our children and the elderly. They are the great equalizer,” DeWater said.
With the launch of this program, DeWater said growing outside of Omaha is a reachable goal. Under the brand name, Bigfoot Repair, he is concentrating on expanding the company to smaller markets that lack repair providers, geographically located between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. Its first location is scheduled to open in the second quarter of this year.
“At [a wireless carrier] store out in West Point (Nebraska), they told me they have people coming in every day with broken phones, and they have no solution for them,” DeWater said. “We are going to look for the West Points of the Midwest, build out our stores and hire people from this program to staff them.”
DeWater said his ultimate goal for iFixOmaha is for it to be a legacy brand in the community.
“We’re going to contract as many people as we can to do work for iFixOmaha, but they are also empowered to compete directly with us, and we’re going to engage with that and say, ‘You can start your own business,’” DeWater said. “If I can help students do that, then I’ve done my job here. I want to move iFixOmaha to be known as the company that trains people exclusively at MCC and is building the future technicians of this industry. That’s where my passion is.”
For more information on the MCC Mobile Device Repair Academy or to register, visit mccneb.edu/MobileRepair.