Talk to any manufacturer today and one of their top concerns is finding the skilled labor needed to compete in a global marketplace. Add in new technologies being added to the factory floor and the situation is even more pressing. At trade shows, where new products like metal 3D Printers are being introduced, I often hear, “I’d love to buy that new machine, but I have no one who can run it!” With the U.S. Department of Labor predicting a short fall of over 2 million skilled workers by the year 2020, demand is unusually high. Well, employers, large and small, in the manufacturing industry need look no farther than their local fab lab or makerspace for just the people they say they need to produce goods and services in the Digital Factory.

This Isn’t Your Grandparents’ Dirty Old Mill

Today’s factories are clean, safe and contain the coolest new tools like 3D Printing, laser cutters, robotics, generative design software and AR/VR all tied together through the Internet of Things. Blue-collar jobs operating and maintaining machine tools are now digital New Collar Jobs bringing with them a new set of skill requirements. Laser and CNC machines are driven by Computer Aided Design [CAD] files and data collected from embedded sensors need to be analyzed to predict maintenance schedules. Despite fears that robots are taking over manufacturing jobs, in reality, automation does the boring work while humans get to imagine, design, program, and of course, repair the Co-Bots that work along side them.

In developing a Digital Badge micro-certification program for new technologies in manufacturing, Fab Lab Hub needed to find out just what skills were needed for today’s operators and technicians. We talked with 200 employers ranging in size from startups to Fortune 10 and the results were a bit surprising.

Without hesitation, 95% of the manufacturers said they are looking for people with problem-solving skills. All of this new technology means that there is little historical memory in a plant for operating and fixing machinery. Add to this the reliability issues with 3D Printers and other newly launched machines and it is no wonder problem solving is so important on the factory floor. Secondly, employers need people with hands-on experience making things. At one university prototyping lab in a rural location, the manager looks to local farms to find the kind of practical experience he needs especially for operating 3D Printers.

Direct Link to Making Skills

Problem solving and hands-on experience, along with a few other skills mentioned like CAD design and basic arithmetic, led me directly to the kinds of abilities we develop in makerspaces and fab labs. Although I live in a Fab Lab world, that is not the outcome I expected from the study. But it makes perfect sense.

Individual facilities may vary in the exact tool set, education offerings, and business model, but all of these modern fabrication workshops give anyone access to tools that allow them to hold their ideas in their hands. Makerspaces are not a place where you read about making! Using everything from hand tools to digital machines like 3D Printers and laser cutters, people of all ages, genders and walks of life can design and create pretty much anything they want.

Innovative Programs

Partially in thanks to the maker movement, more and more schools are incorporating fab labs and makerspaces into their classrooms. When combined with project-based learning activities, education is meaningful and engaging which leads to stronger outcomes. The most powerful projects are initiated by students in response to needs in their own lives and communities and that’s when the real magic happens!

Coming from manufacturing, my own interest is in workforce training for operators and technicians to meet the current skills gap. Using the data from the manufacturing study mentioned above, Fab Lab Hub has developed a post-secondary Digital Badging program to certify skill achievement for New Collar Jobs. I’ll be talking more about this national initiative at the Bay Area Maker Faire during the Industry Career & College day on Friday at 10:40 am on the center stage. There will also be a 2nd talk on Sunday at 11:15 am.

It’s an exciting time to be working in digital manufacturing but it’s especially rewarding to be able foster a rewarding career path through making.