Workers learning skills under new director at Appliance Depot

Donations to Appliance Depot have dropped significantly in recent months, so new director Thoren Rogers has actually started telling people: Stop recycling.

“It is risky,” he said. “But it grabs the attention.”

Rogers took over the director position in January after joining the depot as a job coach and operations manager in 2007. Appliance Depot opened in September 2005 as a project of ReUse Works, a nonprofit organization that promotes job training and business development for low-income people.

The depot, located at 802 Marine Drive in Bellingham, salvages, repairs and sells used appliances. Through partnerships with community agencies such as the Opportunity Council and WorkSource, it also provides part-time job training to about 40 people each year.

Rogers said his biggest task as he starts 2012 is finding more sources for used appliances.

Duane Jager, ReUse Works executive director, said many local retailers offer customers free pickup and recycling of old appliances, which gives people less incentive to donate used washing machines, dryers and ranges.

“We’re having to convince consumers to take that extra step to call us,” Jager said.

Rogers said Appliance Depot teaches people both “soft” job skills, including coming to work on time, dressing appropriately, staying on task and accurately maintaining time cards, as well as “hard” skills such as customer service, working with tools and stripping parts out of appliances.

Trainees come from all walks-of-life, Rogers said. The depot works with teenagers who support families, single moms, people with learning disabilities and unemployed workers seeking new skills.

“We’re one of the only places locally that does labor-oriented training,” Rogers said.

Jager said Appliance Depot provides trainees with recent work history and a job reference, both vital for unemployed people searching for jobs.

Depot technician Steve Ellis said it’s rewarding to see trainees develop new skills and experience they can use to better their careers and provide for their families.

He also likes the fact that Appliance Depot can offer refurbished appliances, which are expensive to purchase brand new, to customers at low prices.

“I feel like we’re actually saving people money,” Ellis said.

Kelli Carter, the depot’s office and sales manager, started out as a trainee three years ago cleaning out donated appliances. She said she has managed to work her way up with help from the training program.

One of her favorite jobs is helping local artists track down used parts for sculptures and various art projects. The depot is a creative and friendly place to work, she said.

“It’s the first business that’s given me a chance to learn new job skills,” Carter said. “It’s not a headache to come to work.”

Artwork built out of used appliances and appliance parts dots the store and parking lot. As customers pull into the depot, they are welcomed by a large pink metal hippo and a multicolored, vaguely humanoid robot with crazy-looking eyes and a blue bow tie.

The showroom looks much like any appliance showroom, with refurbished washers and dryers lined in rows and a sales counter near the back.

The workshop is a maze of gutted appliances and machinery. Various parts, tools,  pipes and rubber hoses hang from ceilings or sit on tall blue shelves. Yellow lines mark walkways, and workbenches are situated on the room’s outer edges.

Appliance Depot celebrates its quirky nature with the Appliance Art Revival, an annual fundraiser typically held the first weekend in June.

Teams build derby carts out of used appliance parts and race them down the streets of downtown Bellingham. The depot also holds an appliance art auction.

As the new director, Rogers will take over the event’s coordination. He said artwork was a great way to promote the style of creative reuse that Appliance Depot thrives on.

Rogers, a lifelong Whatcom County resident, graduated from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University in 2003 with a degree in sociology and media studies. He has worked in job training and community service for 13 years.

Jager, who was also the depot’s previous director, said Rogers’ experience at the store made him an easy pick to take over.

“He pretty much demonstrated he was running the show,” Jager said. “He was obviously the heir apparent.”

The job comes with many challenges. Jager said they would really like to work with local dealers to refurbish used appliances rather then send them to recycling centers.

Appliance Depot will never rival the sales of retail stores, Rogers said, so he needs to convince dealers the depot is not competition.

Funding cuts to job-training placement agencies also impact the depot. The agencies pay the wages of trainees, who work anywhere from one to 30 hours per week.

Jager said this helps Appliance Depot keep its operating costs low.

However, more cuts means a smaller pool of money to pay trainees’ wages.

Rogers said with high unemployment, community job-training programs are vital to get people back to work.

“There’s no shortage of folks who need to be in a program like this,” Rogers said. “There’s just a shortage of places for them to go.”


Photos by Brian Corey

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