Made in Baltimore: Makerspaces as a Hub for Workforce Training

Education Workshop
Made in Baltimore: Makerspaces as a Hub for Workforce Training

The notion of training people for specific jobs is a relatively recent phenomenon, growing out of an economy that has become increasingly specialized over the last century. America started out as an agrarian nation with a largely extractive economy: we grew stuff, chopped stuff down, dug stuff up, and shipped it to richer countries. To support all of this raw labor, there were some skilled trades – coopers, carpenters, smiths, surveyors, boat builders – that trained their workers on an apprenticeship system. The Industrial Revolution pulled workers from farms into factories, and new mechanized production methods stripped much of the art from making goods. Workers didn’t necessarily need the extensive training of formal apprenticeship, and mostly learned on the factory floor.

The U.S. didn’t give much thought to vocational education until 1917, with the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act, which set up America’s first dedicated trade schools. This coincided with the two largest wartime mobilizations in history, which set up conscripts with basic mechanical training and acclimated them to working in a disciplined system. After the Second World War, this latent potential exploded: the rest of the world’s economies were devastated, and America had natural resources, a trained workforce, and a nascent consumer economy hungry for new goods. Domestic production took off, providing solid middle-class jobs to a generation of workers, who then had money to buy what they were making.

Surface Project installing our stair treads, made by apprentice craftspeople. Photo by Will Holman
Surface Project installing our stair treads, made by apprentice craftspeople. Photo by Will Holman

But American manufacturing employment peaked in 1977, and has been declining ever since, down to just 9% of America’s workforce today. In manufacturing’s mid-century heyday, all you needed to get a factory job was a pulse and a social security number, but those days have largely passed. The business of making things is increasingly complex. There is a thick stew of factors at work: offshoring of low-skill work; increasing automation; increasing college enrollment; and the skyrocketing number of contingent workers (part-time, contract, or temporary employees). Some estimate that a whopping 40% of Americans will be freelancers by 2020.

In response to these market forces, there has been a shift from traditional job-training (vocational training in high schools and community colleges) towards sector-based training (partnering with employers in industry clusters) over the last twenty years. This approach attempts to take advantage of regional economic strengths, building training programs for jobless adults that target specific industries like construction, textiles, or advanced manufacturing. Often, these are paired with intensive wrap-around services that help trainees with housing, childcare, transportation, and life skills.

Accent wall in lobby made with reclaimed floor baords from DETAILs. Photo by Will Holman
Accent wall in lobby made with reclaimed floorboards from DETAILs.

While sector-based partnerships have been very successful (including in Maryland), they are based on the notion of placing graduating trainees in full-time, permanent jobs. Increasingly – arguably, since 1977 – those jobs don’t exist anymore. More and more work, including skilled trade work, is contingent: non-unionized, decentralized, and contractual. Further, manufacturing employment has just started growing again in America ticking up a few percentage points since 2010. But this growth is not in what we think of as traditional manufacturing – it is in hyper-skilled, just-in-time, specialized industries that require quick turnarounds and specialized processes.

Makerspaces have a unique role to play in this new environment. As Open Works has thought about ways to engage with workforce development, we have talked to a lot of employers in the Baltimore region. Baltimore has a growing base of advanced manufacturers, including Danko Arlington, Marine Applied Physics Corporation, Potomac Photonics, and Blueprint Homes. Alongside those larger companies is a growing base of smaller, craft-based maker businesses that need skilled woodworkers, sewers, and metal artisans. Many have expressed a need for non-traditional lateral thinkers, people with both hard technical skills and the ability to creatively problem-solve with minimal supervision. These industries are also changing so fast that we also can’t predict where they will be in a few years, underscoring the need for flexible skill sets. For example, in 2010, the domestic drone industry was virtually non-existent; by 2020 it is expected to be an almost $6 billion industry sector.

Welding trainees from the Jane Adams Resource Center inspect our staircase welds on a site visit in April. Photo by Will Holman
Welding trainees from the Jane Adams Resource Corporation inspect the welds on our staircase.

Open Works is taking a four-pronged approach to bridging the skills gap between dynamic new industries and those looking for jobs:

1. Our longest-term plan is to grow a pipeline of skilled makers that starts very young, with elementary school-age children engaging with our youth programming. Hopefully, that sparks an interest that allows them to stay with our after school programs through high school, then into college or skilled trades.

2. We are in conversation with a half-dozen local job-training programs to see where Open Works’ unique facilities can add value to their existing or anticipated curriculums. With our classrooms and computer lab, we can teach coding, graphic design, CAD software, web design, and database management. In our workshops, we can get students and trainees in front of the latest 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC routers, as well as traditional fabrication equipment like woodworking and welding. We hope to be able to announce a partnership at our opening this fall.

3. In Baltimore, there are several innovative job-training programs that function more like businesses – social enterprises with a revenue stream that helps fund the training and pay the workers. One such program, Surface Project, makes table and countertops out of wood reclaimed from vacant row homes by another similar program, DETAILs Deconstruction. We’ve tried to allocate as much of our construction spending to these programs as we could to help support their work. In the future, there is room for a similar social enterprise model in Open Works, utilizing our machinery to make products or do contract work.

4. Over time, as we react to the growing need for skilled contract workers, we’d like to grow an in-house program that cross-trains people on a broad array of tools and creative problem-solving techniques. A few months back, we were fortunate to host Bernie Lynch, of Made Right Here, a Department of Labor-certified apprenticeship program in Pittsburgh. MRH connects all of the dots: training people on 50 different hard skills at a TechShop; pairing that with 50 soft skills to help folks adapt to different workplaces; and connecting trainees with flexible jobs at startups coming out of Carnegie Mellon. Qualified graduates join an online hub where employers can browse for the skills they need.

Screenshot of Made Right Here job board.
Screengrab of Made Right Here website.

Ultimately, Open Works is making a commitment to job training because we need to be a platform for economic empowerment for everyone – not just the college graduates with the next great startup idea. Baltimore has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the state, and a mostly service-based economy that makes it hard to climb into the middle class. Open Works can be a place where all paths cross – employers, trainees, and education – to create a more equitable economy for everyone.

In our next installment, we’ll discuss our other adult education programs that focus on more general maker skills and projects.

Construction Update

Since the last post, we have:

1. Begun installing all of the cabinets and the reception desk.

2. Finished lighting upstairs.

3. Sealed the concrete floors.

4. Finished supergraphic on the north side of the building.

Storage lockers going into co-working areas. Photo by Will Holman

Supergraphic on north wall. Photo by Will Holman


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Will Holman is the general manager of Open Works. A maker himself, he is the author of Guerilla Furniture Design, out now from Storey Publishing.

View more articles by Will Holman


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