Late last month, I had the opportunity to visit Vocademy – the Makerspace in Riverside, Calif. Vocademy is a combination of the "best parts of makerspaces, school shop classes, trade schools, R&D labs, and dream garages, all in one place." Vocademy is the fulfillment of the dream of Gene Sherman "to solve the skills gap for the manufacturing industry." His goal is to replicate Vocademy facilities all over the country and help eliminate the skills gap in just a few years.
When I interviewed Gene about his past career to find out what led him to start the Vocademy, he told me that his parents had emigrated from the Ukraine to the Chicago area when he was seven years old, but had moved to Thousand Oaks in southern California when he was 12. His father started a machine shop, and he worked in it from age 14 to 21, nights and weekends while going to school and then full-time after graduating. He became a journeyman machinist by age 21 and went to work for Charmilles (predecessor to GF Agie Charmilles) as their youngest applications engineer and taught their customers how to use the EDM machines he had operated in his father's shop. Later, he started working for Systems 3R and became their regional manager, teaching how to operate and build tooling for EDM machines. He visited about 400 shops from 1990–1999.
Then, he moved to Las Vegas to be part of a start-up semiconductor company, but it was a victim of the crash of 2001, so he moved back to southern California. In 2007, he started working for the University of California at Riverside in their Mechanical Engineering program, but they wouldn't let him teach because he didn't have a teaching credential.
When I asked why he started Vocademy, he said, "Over the past 20 years, I witnessed the demise of hands-on skills teaching in this country. Schools have done away with these critical classes that taught practical life skills like woodworking and metal shop. These were the classes where people learned how to use tools and technology and develop the mindsets necessary to create new and amazing things.
“Companies used to have apprenticeship programs or offered to hire people and train them. But most of these programs have gone away due to budget constraints or changing technology. Most companies do not have the time or resources to train people in fundamental hands-on skills. So there is a vast divide between the companies that need skilled people and opportunities for people to obtain those skills. Today, manufacturing is not just hammers and screwdrivers. It's advanced textiles, robotics, automation, composites and other high-tech, hands-on skills. The skills gap problem exists, but with very few solutions.
“Vocademy is an idea that I have had for many years. I started to think about the 'makerspaces' that were springing up and wanted to combine that type space with teaching the kinds of skills that were previously taught in 'shop' classes. I wanted to create a place for those who want to use their hands, in addition to their minds ─ makers, inventors and dreamers. I believe that if our country loses its ability to make and build things, we will have lost what made America great. Edison, Franklin, the Wright Brothers, and many others started in small workshops with basic tools.
I think the 'maker' movement, if it stays a movement of play, may be a fad. I want it to become a movement of hands-on learning because we could eliminate the skills gap in just a few years.
“I wanted to provide access to these tools, but with proper and practical instruction on how to use them correctly and safely. I wanted a place that teaches the most state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques, not just traditional shop skills. I wanted to teach these important skills without the bureaucracy of academia because many more Americans should have the same opportunity to innovate, collaborate, learn, and create their dreams."
He started what has become the Vocademy program in the shop he had built behind his house and started teaching machining skills evenings and on weekends. In 2012, he moved into an office building with the equipment he had and funded Vocademy with his own life savings. Since then, he has been able to increase their equipment by forming partnerships with equipment manufacturers to get equipment at low or no cost. Several companies, including ProtoTRAK CNC, Weller APEX, Full Spectrum Laser, VPro 3D Printers and Mark Forged 3D Printers, have come on board as OEM partners. They see the value in helping create a workforce and the brand exposure Vocademy provides.
I asked Gene how the "Makerspace" and classes are combined. He said, "From Monday-Friday, it is a place of learning for schools and companies, and then it becomes a 'makerspace' nights and weekends, open to everyone, ages 14+, 7 days a week on a membership basis. We have all the amazing tools you would want in your own dream garage, workshop or inventor's lab. We make it accessible to all those in the community who want to learn, build, create and become makers. We have classes that can take anyone from absolute beginner, all the way to expert, and anywhere in between. We provide the best combination of tools, equipment, instructors, access and education. We offer hands-on skills training for kids, employees, teachers, students, organizations and companies. We're not a replacement for trade schools or colleges; we're the place where someone discovers that they are makers and gets a solid set of foundational skills ─ enough skills to get a good entry level job, pursue a higher education, continue on to trade school, or become an entrepreneur."
He added, "We're also working with school districts to help inspire and teach kids. For the last seven months, Learn4Life, a charter school, has been using our classrooms in the day for traditional subjects, and then the students can also take specific classes to learn the hands-on skills that interest them.
“We're working with private companies to train their workforce. They send us employees to train or up-skill. We don't waste time with unnecessary theory or history, just real world and industry-based skills. We also do team building events and offer our classes and memberships as an employee reward/perk. We're working with non-profits to help those who need these skills, such as veterans, foster kids and others who are undeserved in our communities."
While Gene gave me a tour of the facility, he described the types of classes and training they provide: 3D printing and scanning, CADCAM and graphics, welding and fabrication, machining/CNC, woodworking, laser cutting and engraving, plastics and composites, programming and coding, and prototyping. Plus, they have several special programs in development for drone design, industrial automation, robotics, advanced manufacturing, horticulture, “wearables,” and more.
I told him that there is currently no specialized training being offered by anyone in precision sheet metal fabrication because the turret presses and press brakes are so expensive. When I was on the advisory committee to the president of San Diego City College, I tried to set up collaboration between the college and a sheet metal shop to provide this training, but it fell through because of the liability issues of students working on privately owned equipment off campus.
I saw only six Lincoln MIG welding machines in their welding shop and told him that it would be great if Lincoln Electric would become one of their partners to donate more welders because trained welders can get immediate jobs. In the 3D printing shop, he showed me the 3D printer that his students had built to make larger parts than their small commercial machines could make.
I asked what his future plans were for expansion. He said, "Going forward, we plan on replicating this model all over the country. Our second Vocademy will be in Orange County, number three in Pasadena/Burbank area, and number four in San Diego. My long-range goal is to have more than 1,000 facilities nationwide. It only costs about $2,000,000 to set up a 30,000 sq. ft. facility in southern California, so it would be cheaper in other parts of the country. If we could get more corporate sponsors or partners to provide some or all of the equipment, the costs could be reduced. The other big part of our business is helping others set up makerspaces in schools, colleges, communities and companies. These smaller turnkey makerspaces can be the place where the maker passion is ignited and a career path is found."
He added, "Our formula is simple. Students can come learn the subjects they want, when they want, and learn as much as they want. From beginner to expert, they can decide how far to take their skills. Then, they can take that knowledge with them in their life or career. But one of the things that make Vocademy special is that students can become a member and use those skills in our facility. They can have access to all the tools they have learned to use, for a small monthly fee. It's not just the tools or the building. We have an incredibly collaborative and creative environment. It's where life-long friendships are being made, and it's where people come together to create amazing things."
He said, "I think the 'maker' movement, if it stays a movement of play, may be a fad. I want it to become a movement of hands-on learning because we could eliminate the skills gap in just a few years."
I told him that I share his goal, and when he expands to San Diego, I will be happy to be involved, perhaps to teach a class on how to start your own business. I mentioned that I had taught teenagers in an after-school program at two high schools in San Diego as well as a summer camp for a non-profit organization for two years. It is critical that we get back to being a nation of "makers" because manufacturing is the foundation of the middle class, and our middle class has been shrinking for the last 30 years as we moved more and more manufacturing offshore.