Can the Maker Movement End the Skills Gap?
Posted on July 8th, 2015

Manufacturing Engineering
By: Michael C. Anderson
6/12/2015

We in the manufacturing world have been watching the skills-gap crisis in manufacturing rise up around us: The number of baby-boomers retiring has become a flood while the number of young people interested in manufacturing slows to a trickle. Most of us, however, haven’t been aware that another cultural change is happening at the same time—a change that, if nurtured, could become a lifeline for manufacturers.

What’s changed? Under our collective noses, and not because of our HR departments or schools, making things has become cool. In fact there is enough people who think so that they compose a movement—the maker movement—whose excitement can be channeled to create the next generation of skilled and motivated manufacturers.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of Gene Sherman, a self-described maker who has been a machinist and toolmaker and is now an educator and entrepreneur as the founder of Vocademy—The Makerspace (Riverside, CA). Sherman was a Keynoter at the Big M event in Detroit in mid-June, where he shared his history and his vision with rapt manufacturing-industry listeners.

“The maker movement is massive and we have to take advantage of it for the sake of our country,” Sherman said. “Because the skills gap scares me.”

Ripples from Shop Class

The skills gap in manufacturing and the maker movement have a common ancestor in the reduction or outright loss of shop class and what used to be called vocational education in most US high schools in recent decades.

“By the 1990s and 2000s, shop classes were gone,” Sherman said. “In the 1990s for some reason, the thinking shifted. People decided that shop class was no longer relevant. ‘We don’t make things any more—everyone should go to college,’ the message went. Now, on the west coast, maybe one in a hundred schools has a wood shop left, and it is using archaic equipment and kids are sent there as punishment. And that’s wrong. We’ve taken away the opportunities of millions of kids.”

But is there something wrong with wanting your kids to go to college? “People sometimes think I’m anti-college. No,” Sherman said, “I’m anti- college being your only choice. Our education system has to change—it has to go from judging people by how intelligent they are to instead asking ‘how are you intelligent?’ There are different ways of being intelligent.”

Whether the near-elimination of hands-on shop classes from school curricula was a symptom of or a cause of the fall of manufacturing as a respected career goal in mainstream culture is a worthy subject of analysis. In any case, by the turn of the millennium a growing lack of STEM skills was becoming evident, according to Sherman.

“I hear from companies all the time things like, ‘we gave this university a $10 million grant and the engineering graduates we get don’t know which end of a screwdriver to use,’” Sherman said. “And beyond the perspective of job skills, what has been lost are life skills. How many of us took wood shop and did not turn out to be carpenters? But we added those skills to our skill set. ‘Wood shop’ is material properties. It’s stress analysis. They just didn’t necessarily call it that.”

Makers

But something interesting started to happen in the first years of the new millennium. In the early 2000s, what became known as the maker movement started to form in this country. “It was very loosely knit—people in their garages, people at their kitchen tables, if you were fortunate enough you had a grandpa with some tools in his garage who’d let the grandchildren in, and you’d start tinkering and playing,” Sherman said. Makerspaces start to spring up—they could be anything from a couple of people in a kitchen to a small office in a company to a garage with a bunch of people.

A makerspace is, simply, “a space with tools you could not normally afford, and just enough education on those tools so you won’t kill yourself,” Sherman said. It allows individuals access to expensive modern equipment, from lathes to laser cutters and 3D printers, without needing to be affiliated with a business or school. Key to the whole endeavor is a mindset that says to users of the equipment, stay safe otherwise do whatever you want. It’s an atmosphere of self-guided exploration and play.

Under the radar of most traditional educators and businesses, makerspaces began opening around the country by the thousands—with the Internet, social media and YouTube allowing makers to share word of their projects and venues and spreading their enthusiasm. In 2006, the first “maker faire” was held—wherein hundreds of people gathered to share their knowledge and projects in a festival atmosphere. A month ago, the San Mateo maker faire had almost 180,000 attendees; one in New York recently had 140,000 visitors, Sherman reported. “Making things has become cool,” he said. The movement is real.

What’s in it for Manufacturing?

“The maker movement shows that people want to learn, people want to make things. It’s changing this country in a good way. It’s enabling people to become the innovators,” Sherman says. As evidence he cites the success of eBay and Etsie—billion-dollar businesses built largely on individuals creating something and connecting with buyers. This innovation is important, he said, “because my fear is, when this country stops making the things the world needs, the world will no longer need us. Pretty soon China will be able to take care of its own middle class. Where will that leave us?”

The maker movement—“it’s been going on too long to call it a fad,” Sherman noted—is fostering innovation and teaching hands-on skills that can surely benefit manufacturing employers.

“There’s education, there’s industry, and then there’s the growing maker movement. Makerspaces are what connect all three of those pieces together,” Sherman argued. “They’re hands-on education based on what manufacturing needs.”

Those manufacturing employers need to do more to get future generations of makers interested in developing true STEM skills and a manufacturing career, however.

“Kids are scared of your manufacturing facility,” Sherman asserted. “They see the PR video with a guy named Dave, with his badge and lanyard and hard hat, describing how he’s been in charge of the boiler or something for thirty years—and kids want to run.” At a makerspace, the same kids will see cosplayers in homemade Batman costumes and a girl no taller than them with a welding mask on and wielding the welding torch right in front of them. The kids “eyes get big and they get excited,” Sherman said.

“You want to get kids into STEM? This is how you start: Get them excited about it in a place that’s not threatening,” he said, noting that 40% of participants at his maker spaces are women, and the average age of the makers there is early 30s.

Makerspaces and Training

The other issue for manufacturers is to get the makers’ skills beyond a hobbyist level. Sherman uses an execise metaphor to explain. Most makerspaces are like 24-hour gyms—you stop by when you can and use the equipment. What he says he is offering with his Vocademy facilities is more like an Olympic training facility—with a larger emphasis on training.

The maker culture is very self-directed, very do-it-yourself, he explained. “The attitude is, ‘want to use a milling machine? Here’s a three-hour class.’ And if any of you have been around milling machines you understand why that scares the hell out of me.” Sherman’s for-profit business model combines a well-equipped makerspace with training more like the best of those old shop classes, so that when someone finishes their training, they have a more solid set of skills.

Sherman has a business model but says that he is encouraging the continued proliferation of makerspace of any kind as a benefit to the US and a way of fighting the skills gap.

The maker movement can end up being “a solution to the skills gap,” Sherman insisted. “Granted it’s not going to come tomorrow. For 20 years we’ve been doing it wrong. But right now the maker movement is growing and it’s massive.

“If you Google ‘skills gap,’ it scares you,” he finished, “But if you Google ‘maker movement,’ you think ‘oh, we have a chance.’ We have to take advantage of it.”


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