You wake up one morning with The Idea — the one new thing that the world can’t do without. You slave away at it night and day, locked in a garage expending the perspiration that Edison said was 99 percent of your job. You Kickstart, you succeed, you get your prototypes out the door. Orders for the new thing pour in, you get a permanent space in some old factory, and build assembly workstations. You order mountains of parts and arrange them on shiny chrome racks, and you’re ready to go — except for one thing. There’s nobody sitting at those nice new workstations, ready to assemble your product. What’s worse, all your attempts to find qualified people have led nowhere, and you can’t even find someone who knows which end of a soldering iron to hold.
Granted, the soldering iron lesson is usually something that only needs to happen once, but it’s not something the budding entrepreneur needs to waste time on. Finding qualified workers to power a manufacturing operation in the 21st century is no mean feat, as Dr. Danielle Applestone discussed at the 2017 Hackaday Superconference. Dr. Applestone knows whereof she speaks — she was the driving force behind the popular Othermill, serving as CEO for Other Machine Co. and orchestrating its rise to the forefront of the desktop milling field. Now rebranded as Bantam Tools, the company is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t ship its manufacturing off to foreign shores — they assemble their products right in the heart of Berkeley, California. So finding qualified workers is something that’s very much on her mind on a daily basis.
From Service Sector to Manufacturing
As Danielle elaborates upon in her talk, the current state of manufacturing in the USA is a mixed bag. The good news is that domestic manufacturing is far from dead, with the US still in the lead among the nations of the world and workers here producing more than 18% of the world’s goods. Manufacturers employ 12.3 million Americans, which sounds like a lot until you realize that’s only 9% of the workforce. That so much is accomplished with so few workers is a testament to industrial efficiency and probably has a lot to do with automation, but even so, about 600,000 manufacturing jobs are currently waiting for skilled workers.
Blame for the current dearth of workers is probably complicated, but things like the disappearance of shop class from high schools in favor of preparing for yet another round of state-mandated testing certainly don’t help. But rather than concentrate on blame, Danielle is looking for a solution, and the 91% of American workers not in manufacturing are a ripe field to harvest. She points with enthusiasm to some of her employees, including an acupuncturist, a videographer, an architect, a retail clerk, and a zookeeper, all of whom gained enough technical skills to become valuable parts of a manufacturing team.
However they got there, Danielle’s workers came from places where the most tech they used on the job was a bar code scanner or an espresso machine, and now they assemble state-of-the-art CNC machines. Some gained the skills they needed on their own, some with the help of a local hackerspace, and we’ll go out on a limb and say some were inspired to pick up a soldering iron after reading Hackaday. And those skills led to the confidence to stretch beyond their former jobs and say, “You know, I bet I can do this.”
The Long Game
While Danielle solved her workforce issues by reaching beyond the normal hiring criteria, she’s not just concerned with the present. She’s planning to be in it for the long haul, and developing a workforce that can handle the changing manufacturing landscape is an important part of the long game. To that end, Danielle advocates getting more people into the maker movement, to the tune of 2 million new hackers over the next decade. She suggests that the key to this is leveraging public libraries, which are increasingly offering access to tools of the hacker trade like 3D printers. If just 1,000 libraries each “upskilled” 200 people a year, that would be a pool of 2 million potential workers to choose from. With 120,000 libraries in the USA, the numbers start to look favorable.
Danielle sees libraries as the key to expanding the maker movement enough to start snaring people who would otherwise not be exposed to tech in a positive and engaging way. She points out that the hardware and software to do this are cheap now, so it’s just a matter of having the will to do it. There’s also the problem of closing the loop between creating new hackers and making them realize that it can be more than a hobby, and that real jobs can come from time spent in a hackerspace or home shop. After all, there are a bunch of people in Berkeley that did it.