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How to Create a 'Maker' Workforce

“I see my job as creating a human resource pipeline for advanced manufacturing,” said Parker Thomas, Fremont, California's 'Maker' education guru.

Fremont, California, is experiencing a boom in manufacturing.

It’s the fourth largest city in the Bay Area, and home to over 800 manufacturing companies which employ 26,000, accounting for 25% of the workforce.

Large companies such as Boston Scientific, Western Digital, Seagate Technologies and Plexus all have facilities there. And then Tesla moved in employing 6,000. Following Tesla, many suppliers are setting up shops in the area.  

The city is trying hard to keep the talent pipeline flowing. While there are many excellent educational programs in place, city planners are casting a strategic eye toward the future and are setting some expansive plans into motion.

One of these plans is to become a Maker City complete with a Maker education philosophy.

The Maker Movement arose from the advent of technology, such as 3D printing, laser cutters, easy-to-use design software and desktop tools, which make it easier for people (instead of only companies) to experiment, tinker and “make” products. These products can be for personal use or as prototypes for commercial endeavors.

The movement has caught on and there are Maker Faires across the country. In fact, on June 18, 2014, the White House hosted its first-ever Maker Faire.

“Our parents and our grandparents created the world’s largest economy and strongest middle class not by buying stuff, but by building stuff -- by making stuff, by tinkering and inventing and building; by making and selling things first in a growing national market and then in an international market -- stuff “Made in America,” President Barack Obama said at the event.

At the heart of a Maker City is providing the resources for people to join the movement. Many cities offer makerspaces full of equipment and technology to attract entrepreneurs. And to support these efforts and feed a talent pipeline into these efforts, Fremont realizes that schools must also be aligned with the maker philosophy.  

And that’s why Fremont last year partnered with FUSE Corp., an organization that helps local government address urban issues, and hired Parker Thomas to develop a new Maker education curriculum for the city’s middle schools.  

Thomas has built and sold two companies, managed the DARPA MENTOR Makerspace program (which gave high school students access to tools and a designated space to learn how to design and build), and co-invented ThinkFun’s Maker Studio, a building toy sold in bookstores and toy stores.

His goal is to help the education system realize “the profound learning opportunities involved with making things.” The creative problem-solving that is necessary for making things is a good tool that future employees need to possess, especially as it applies to advanced manufacturing, he says.  

To achieve that goal Parker is looking to design a sustainable program. “What’s important is to discover what’s available, what’s working and create a process that is replicable after I leave this position,"  explained Thomas. His tenure is a year long. 

“I see my job as creating a human resource pipeline for advanced manufacturing,” Thomas added.

His first step was to explore the current education system and he was happy to find pockets of innovation.

Some of these programs include:

  • The doomsday (zombie apocalypse) machines that Jess Norling’s students at Thornton Junior High create using VEX robotics parts.  The challenge is to create a machine that will convert wind energy into circular motion to grind wheat and linear motion to pump water and to saw wood.  
  • The atmospheric sensors that Tommie Ebanez’s Junior High class has created to mount on drones and weather balloons. They are currently brainstorming how to mount on a drone so that the propeller wash won’t change the readings.  
  • He also visited companies on Manufacturing Day. He went to Lam Research, Evolv and Asteelflash. “I’ve seen automobile and aircraft factories, but I’d never seen anything like the component placement line at Asteelflash or the hair replacement machines Evolv is building. Those were utterly fascinating,” Thomas said. 

Starting at the middle school level to examine learning patterns is necessary in order to both get kids interested in a future career in manufacturing and make sure they have the skills sets necessary for the sector. “Imagine if as early as sixth grade we were to give presentations on careers in advanced manufacturing and get students excited about this field. By high school they would be prepared to look into these careers,” explained Tina Barseghian, Director of Impact Communications for FUSE.

Thomas believes the maker philosophy should be part of any learning program, whether it’s in the schools or in a company’s training program. He sees a wide range of potential employees from students enrolled at community colleges, technical colleges and graduates of universities. He has seen some students that have gone through a few careers or who have graduated and been unable to find positions, turn to technical training and find jobs in advanced manufacturing.

Gathering the talent of the community and connecting them with programs (both in schools and outside of schools) is the job of the community at large, says Thomas. The coalition will need to include parents, teachers, staff, administrators, companies and other members of the community. They will be the key to carrying out a roadmap that Thomas will create within his tenure.

And it’s the knowledge of having such a roadmap that will go a long way toward turning Fremont into a Maker City says Barseghian. “One reason that companies might be hesitant to get involved in workforce programs is due to the time restraint they are under.  With a roadmap, it’s a clear, concise plan of action in a form that manufacturing companies already use.”

In fact when hearing Thomas explain that one of the teachers he met used the teaching philosophy based on four questions – 1) What do we want them to learn 2) How do we know they learned it 3) What to do if they didn’t learn it 4) How do we extend that learning --   it sounds much like the continuous improvement philosophy that most manufacturers embrace.

Aligning the prevalent continuous improvement philosophy in the manufacturing sector with the way students are educated using the Maker movement as the focal point, is certainly an important step in producing the pipeline of talent that Parker is hoping to create for Fremont.

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