Tuesday, April 24, 2012

There are a lot of US Amateur Radio operators who have been cheering the fact that the US licensed  ham population recently kipped over the 700,000 mark as of late.

However, that number alone is probably misleading.  That is, while our Service may appear to be "still growing" (as some folks myopically believe) according to the rest of the analysis derived from that same demographic, our numbers as a percentage of the US population as a whole actually PEAKED back in 1997.

And there's another thing missing from all the data that those who continue to say "all is well" in our Service like to banter about that I believe will eventually prove to be our undoing.  It's the fact that that nowhere in the public FCC database does it state the AGE of our current licensees! 

It is also important to remember that, because our US licenses are all on a 10-year renewal cycle, the demographics these folks are citing were only completely accurate ten years ago!  Who knows how many more of us have died, or have, for whatever reason, chosen to leave the hobby altogether since then?

My own (admittedly, purely anecdotal) evidence that we are on the cusp of a steep decline in our numbers comes from my active work as an accredited examiner in both the USA and Canada.  For the last several years, I have been able to count on the fingers of one hand the number of "under twenty somethings" I've administered examinations to for our Service.  I'm also getting the same feelings expressed by a number of other examiners with whom I regularly have contact.

Indeed, most of my candidates for a new license in our Service have been what I affectionately call "retreads".  These are folks who may have always wanted to get their ham licenses but, for whatever reason, were unable to obtain one until now.  And, not surprisingly, when asked, the vast majority of these folks say they were kept out of our Service by our collective, ongoing obsession with Morse testing. 

Another large group of people I test held a ham ticket at one time long ago, but life (in the form of job, family or income) prevented them from actively pursuing the hobby until now.  In the interim, they simply let whatever license they may have held lapse.

In both cases, most of the folks I'm administering tests to these days are now well into their mid to late 50s. Some are even well into their 60s or 70s. And the VAST majority of them are now retirees. As I have said, there is rarely an "under twenty something" in the lot. 

Now, don't get me wrong.  I think we should be more than happy to have these folks (back) in the fold.  And I welcome then all with open arms. 

But my own personal experiences are increasingly showing that we simply are NOT attracting enough YOUTHFUL newcomers to our Service these days to replace us ever-aging curmudgeons when we (and most of our predominantly older newcomers) are dead and gone.

The bottom line here is that, while our numbers may LOOK like we have "stopped the decline" and are now a robust and growing Service again, the (not-so-hidden) reality is that the (non-club) number of NEW licensees in our Service in the United States peaked in 2007 and has been on its way down ever since.  What's more, based on my recent conversations with the ARRL VEC folks, the median age of newcomers to our Service in the United States tracks pretty closely (around age 50) with those folks who are showing up on MY doorstep to take exams. 

My hunch is that these facts, when combined with (as yet unreported) declines in our ranks from death or lack of interest that are being masked by our ten-year license renewal cycle, our numbers are now poised to start dropping in the USA at an ever more increasing rate.  And I predict they will begin dropping like a rock in the out years as our ever increasing "silent key" rate overtakes and then eventually outpaces our "youthful newcomer" rate. 

Oh...and there's one more thing....

As I and others have repeatedly noted, when you drill down the distribution of licensees among our various license classes in the United States, it appears that more than 342,000 in our ranks now hold nothing more than a Technician license, while only 124,000 or so have "advanced" all the way to Extra Class. 

Or, to put it another way, Technicians now make up a whopping 49 percent...nearly half.... of the non-club whole, while Extra Class operators make up only about 18 percent of the total.

Those who were around in the late 1960s may recall that part of the ARRL's grand "sales job" behind the FCC's so-called "incentive licensing" nonsense back then was to create built-in (largely ego-based) regulatory incentives for ALL of us to feel the strong urge to educate ourselves and "upgrade" all the way to Extra Class. 

It simply hasn't happened, folks.

It would now seem that almost HALF of those in our current ranks have told the FCC to "take a hike" with their stupid "incentive" nonsense. Indeed, for whatever reason, today's Technicians have very clearly shown...by their overwhelming numbers...that they simply aren't interested in "upgrading"... AT ALL!

Indeed, in any other "educational" endeavor, a 18 percent success rate to the "top rung" of the ladder (an Extra Class license) would be considered a dismal failure.  Everywhere else, that is, but with the ARRL's and FCC's myopic attempts to turn the Amateur Radio Service in the United States of America into the "No Budding RF Engineer Left Behind" Radio Service.  

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