Danielle Applestone: Building the Workforce of 2030

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.

46 thoughts on “Danielle Applestone: Building the Workforce of 2030

    1. Privileged white lady pointing at pictures of charity cases — aren’t you so wonderful.
      In reality, none of those employees would ever make it past the in-box of an HR system.

      The days of Ford are gone lady…
      People are learning what a consumer society becomes by literally having to dig through their own trash for parts.
      Your ideas solve your problem — not a macroeconomic trend.

    2. I had an hourly wage job with a corporation and what I actually got vs what they said the job was paying (the “including benefits” part) was almost amusing.
      They did say it with a straight face…

      1. And that’s when they don’t do the bait-and-switch on you. They advertise one position with a decent rate, and on your start day, the position isn’t ready yet and they throw you onto an assembly line for a fraction of the hourly rate.

    3. Data I saw yesterday. 9% of American labor force is in manufacturing and produces 19% of the manufactured goods in the world – which way more than anyone else. Typical or average income (can’t recall which) is over $80K and going up. Portion of the economy? Huge.

      1. I guess I was browsing headlines and followed some threads. I had basically the same numbers she has. But I recall the income wasn’t all wages and it wasn’t benefits. A big effect is profit sharing, which can easily be bigger than your wages – including overtime – if you have been with a company for 15 or 20 years, and move you from $40K to $80K income.

  1. > and you can’t even find someone who knows which end of a soldering iron to hold.

    What’s convenient about soldering irons is they don’t require a manual. They will teach you which end to hold themselves, in an intuitive manner!

  2. Wouldn’t a pretty good approach be to set up in a town where a factory closes and just pick up some of the workers? Sure they’ll mostly have to learn a different station, but they know the business of manufacturing very well and probably bring necessary knowledge to the table. They might get so ambitious as to complain about all your inefficiencies for you so you know who to promote.

  3. Most factory work that I have seen is pretty brainless. Stick rivet (which already is coming out of the end of the gun) into hole. Press trigger. Rivet is placed. Gun automatically reloads itself using endless rivet supply coming to it from a tube somewhere. Part in front of you is on a moving conveyor so new part is in front of you now. repeat. do this for 12 hours a day 6-7 days a week. If people are really not qualified they are probably drooling on the parts too much anyway.

    Now.. for that small bit of assembly work which actually IS skilled… Have employers always expected their employees to arrive already knowing it all. Where did they learn it? How about investing in your workforce a bit and actually teach them what you need them to know?

    1. Watch some Youtube on how they build bulldozers and train engines. Not automotive wiring harnesses where the $35 an our job in the US can be done for $1 an hour in Mexico. (How can stepping across a border make such a huge economic difference?)

      1. There are all sorts of manufacturing jobs. It’s difficult to lump them all together and say anything meaningful.

        Assembly-line stuff is not very well paid. The types of manufacturing jobs that used to be called “trades” seem to be doing ok, from a worker’s perspective — there aren’t enough qualified people to fill demand.

        How can a border make so much difference? It allows the nearly free movement of goods and capital/investment, but prevents free movement of labor. There’s no reason to expect wages to equalize.

    2. You don’t want to make your factory workers put in 12 hours a day 6 to 7 days a week because that’s how you get accidents ,a class action lawsuit and OSHA on your ass.
      Really making any worker put in 80+ hours a week is a good way to completely destroy moral,send quality down the crapper, and get high turn over rate.

  4. “If just 1,000 libraries each “upskilled” 200 people a year, that would be a pool of 2 million potential workers to choose from.” Wouldn’t that be 200 thousand potential workers? Still a sizeable number. Make it 10,000 libraries each “upskill” 200 people a year and we’ll call it good.

  5. 1. “…90% of everybody that has a job is in manufacturing..”
    Depending on how various studies and BLM data is interpreted, approximately 7% to 12% of U.S. jobs are in manufacturing.
    2. “already over one-half million in unfilled manufacturing jobs, and they pay really well..”
    3. “…the software is cheap…”
    Code is never cheap. Whether open source or proprietary, code is typically the single most expensive ‘component’; more so for long-term costs.

    Approximately 55% of job listings are for unfunded and/or non-existent billets. While the median wage for U.S. manufacturing jobs is decent, typically over $55k, and for some areas the medium manufacturing wage is over $80k, both short and long-term wage trends for production are decreasing.

    Ms. Applestone is a well-educated and runs a ‘hip’ company, such that it is considered a stylish gen-X run company, so is able to attract well-educated people that want to try something different. Certainly not represetative of the North American manufacturing plant. And to depress you further, there is a growing movement to privatize public libraries, or at least the library work force (it just happened here in an adjacent San Diego County community).

    Another note, recently helped a friend hire a machinist. We were able to select from several skilled crafts people that had CNC experience, all ready to work for the low end of the “average” manufacturing wage. The one we hired was familiar with HaD, Sparkfun, Adafruit, etc. These people are not hard to find if you do not let the HR morons obfuscate the process.

    1. “Approximately 55% of job listings are for unfunded and/or non-existent billets.”

      There are rumblings (that I can’t confirm) that a lot of the “manufacturing jobs” are just hustles to allow the use of an H1B visa to bring in cheaper labor.

      I’ve asked around about this (my area is CPG manufacturing) and have gotten wildly disparate answers (everything from “You’re a racist” to “Of course…you idiot”).

      It’s not a neutral topic.

        1. I suppose you could demand they have the “answer” for the test in an envelope in front of you, to show that they actually have one. Of course it’s not usually the poor lamb filling the form who calls the shots in an interview.

          Still, if dishonesty pays, then that’s what you’re gonna get. That’s capitalism.

  6. I’ve seen it done completely successfully: set up shop in a college town, and hire in college kids to do light assembly, customer service, and marketing work. Of course they don’t know anything coming in. Most of them don’t even know how to navigate a work environment and chain of responsibility. But they learn SO fast, and you really only have to train the first few in the basics.

      1. I think it gets you over the hump, though. You’re able to get 90% done and that leaves you to focus on the 10% of time working with external job shops etc. Run a few successful products and you’ll be able to hire in-house skilled workers.

        Oversimplifying, of course. Some companies could run forever with minimal assembly skills. Some need advanced manufacturing techniques from the start. I think if you’re launching a small startup it’s more likely that you will not be pushing the envelope of manufacturing at first.

    1. Precision machine work and manufacturing is a specialty unto itself. You don’t hire some college kid off the street. At a minimum they’ll need a basic course in shop practices so they don’t kill or maim themselves because they have zero idea what’s it’s like to work around machinery that can rip a arm off or wrap it like taffy. Then further training for precision machine work, etc. At least six months.

      Also learning fast doesn’t mean they learn it well. Big difference when precision work is required and a do over is too costly to do.

      There are a reason machining and metal working/welding are considered trades – because they require a lot of time and effort to learn properly. Some is learned in school some is learned from your mentor on the job.

  7. Well if I was setting up a manufacturing shop the last place I would do it would be Berkeley. I’d find a town that does medium to heavy manufacturing and set up shop there after doing a bit of leg work. To be honest I’d look outside of CA because the cost of living is insane.

    Berkeley is even worse, it’s a city for spoiled rich people. The rents for a tiny apartment could be a nice mortgage payment on a 3000 Sqft ranch style house most other places.

    And certainly not a college town. Those kids wouldn’t know a lathe from a milling machine let alone how to maintain, set up and use these tools. You want tradesmen not kids who’ll need a six month course on basic machine shop practices.

    Are maker rooms in libraries a solution?: Maybe if they have tools like lathes, milling machines with experienced tradesmen to teach the skills necessary. That will be expensive in terms of electricity, staff, etc. That used to be the job of junior high and high schools until the trades were seen as something only losers do and out they went. I remember when high school taught Arc and Oxyacetylene welding along with forging and casting as well.

    We screwed ourselves with our fetish with high tech and focus on white collar jobs.

  8. When your manufacturing process is so difficult that you can’t find people that are skilled enough to do it, the problem is on your side, and not the society should solve this problem….
    There are some possibilities:
    1)You pay to few for good workers
    2)You don’t want to pay any cent for training or learning
    3)Youre product is planed really unprofessional, so that it’s totally difficult to build

    In germany the IT enterprises that have problem 1 and 2 are growing every day and all talking about the “Fachkräftemangel” (lack of proffessionals). All professionals laught about this lamentation, because they just dont want to pay the price of proffessionals.
    That this really happens in the USA in manufacturing is ridiculous…WTF!?

  9. It comes down to what you learned from your family. I do woodworking. My father showed me how and he was brought up on an isolated farm where his father had to do everything and so he learned that he could accomplish whatever he set out to do. Historically trades were passed down from father to son, and this is an instance of the same thing.

    I also do soldering and electronics. Here my father learned along with me and came from a “can do” attitude. I very quickly learned not to get burned. Also we rebuilt the engine of the junker car that I bought when I was old enough to drive. So I know that I can fix cars.

    Today’s kids sit in front of a TV or a game console and learn to push buttons and work the remote. Some parents will spend time with the kids, junior soccer and all, but others expect the kids to be taught by strangers at school or to learn on the streets.

  10. Tired of this disingenuous whine from employers. There are ALWAYS people who will take the job and succeed at it that ARE available. Its a matter of framing the discussion. It’s equally valid to say that people come up with business ideas that are unsustainable and blame the quality of workforce that is willing to accept the offered pay for the problem. Sure if they could get a huge staff of engineers and tradesmen to work for $10/hr then a lot of businesses would be viable.

  11. Much of the problem is the separation between the jobs location and potential employees current digs. In the event the potential employee is saddled with a mortgage they can’t pack up and move elsewhere. any area of employment will need jobs for both spouses. companies should consider moving small manufacturing to rural area where there ar plenty of good workers and are a quick study when it learning new skills. Of course current management would care for the move, even if their earnings will go further in a rural area.

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