The “makerspace” movement that is bringing small manufacturing back to cities by making 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other tools for start-ups and inventors is running up against the same constraints as other U.S. employers: a shortage of workers willing to manage machines for $600 to $1,200 a week.
“This generation is lacking basic skills like showing up on time, and giving you a firm handshake,” says Anna Maria Vona, owner of Carmana Designs, a South Philly custom carpentry shop.
In a bid to connect small manufacturers like Carmana and start-ups to recent grads, people changing careers, “returning citizens” from prison, and others, the U.S. Small Business Administration has given a $100,000 grant to NextFab, Evan Malone’s 10-year-old makerspace, with 1,200 members at sites in North and South Philadelphia and Wilmington.
It’s one of a dozen grants from its new Makerspace Training, Collaboration and Hiring (MaTCH). The pilot effort is meant to help budding businesses prepare new workers.
The NextFab grant will boost Furnishing a Future, a NextFab affiliate that has been training two new woodworkers every six weeks since the woodshop was set up by Steve Greenberg four years ago. Carmana apprentice Corey White is a graduate of the program; his initial wages were paid mostly by city grants, but he has long since moved onto the payroll. “He just earned his third raise in a year,” Carmana said.
Greenberg says he plans to move the program from NextFab’s largest facility, on Washington Ave. in South Philly, to expanded quarters at NextFab’s new location on American Street uptown, and boost enrollment to five new trainees every six weeks.
“This is a great place for guys that are maybe coming off probation,” Greenberg said. “Here they have access to a computer for job opportunities. They rub elbows with people who are used to working for a living. They stop and talk about different ways to do things. They become invested in the work.”
The SBA, meanwhile, is looking "to find training that would lead to specific jobs,” said Chris Pilkerton, who became acting agency chief last spring when Linda McMahon, the pro wrestling boss and major Trump donor, stepped down to take charge of the Trump reelection campaign.
“We want to learn from makerspaces -- how are you communicating, how are you locating individuals? So that when they come to our offices to get capital,” through SBA loan programs, “we can also give them workforce counseling.”
Malone said, “These are artisan businesses. They are trying to scale up,” as he led Pilkerton and other visitors on a walking tour of his flagship facility and a next-door warehouse full of NextFab members’ products. These included brightly colored folding bicycle cargo boxes from the city residents who started Bikebox; autonomous farm carts from the Chester County farmer-developer’s son who started Philly-based Augean Robotics; and household products from the laid-off Sunoco staffer who started Destined Goods.
“These makerspaces are having a real impact on cities,” said Pilkerton. “And not just because they are homes for entrepreneurs. Also because those entrepreneurs are building workforces.”
Pilkerton said he was inspired by a Baltimore makerspace where a group of young men were experimenting with stone masonry techniques to build inexpensive tombstones for “the many people they had lost to gang warfare. It made me proud of them, and it broke my heart.
“The number one issue I hear from businesses is the need to identify skilled workers. It’s not just about learning specific skills, the front-end programming classes these makerspaces are providing, the coordination with universities for tech jobs. It’s also the soft skills -- being part of a team, taking direction, being on time, 100 percent.”
I noted that many of my readers deny there’s any labor shortage; they say bosses aren’t willing to raise wages to what workers need to live on.
Not true, insisted Greenberg: “The population I’m working with are used to working off the books for minimum wage. When I tell these guys they can work in places like this and get $13 to $15 an hour and overtime and vacation time, they want in."
Malone also used the visit to showcase some of the 23 companies where NextFab’s Venture Services has invested a total of $666,000 (drawing a few million more from other investors) since setting up its Rapid Hardware Accelerator program three years ago.
Firms selected for the program include Augean Robotics, started by Charlestown Township native and Harvard MBA Charles Andersen, whose experimental carts are helping to get California wine grapes and Driscoll’s berries from pickers to packers; Sage Smart Garden, whose founders, University of Delaware friends Trevor Stephens and Ariel Ramirez, partnered with Dustyn Roberts, now a senior lecturer at Penn, to automate irrigation systems; Princeton native Josh Israel and his partners at Hava, who find NextFab far more helpful and less expensive than the “coworking” sites spreading across urban office districts; and Solution Medical, whose founders met at a Thomas Jefferson University hackathon, before cofounder Julia Anthony went on to get a graduate degree in industrial design.
Rival financing programs have sprung up all over North America, and some firms have become expert at moving from city to city as more capital becomes available, noted NextFab’s venture services manager, Todor Raykov.
“We are planning to start a [full-fledged] venture fund,” with additional investors, Malone said. While state-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partners provides vital early-stage funding, he sees plenty of room to back more-established ventures.