In 2016, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty wrote an open letter to then-President-elect Donald Trump urging more initiatives around “new collar” factory and manufacturing jobs, positions left vacant because employers couldn’t find people with the right mix of hands-on experience and digital skills. Four-year college programs weren’t the answer, Rometty said, since many IBM manufacturing positions don’t require such degrees: “What matters most is relevant skills, sometimes obtained through vocational training.”

That’s the philosophy behind Fab Lab Hub, a training center for digital fabrication based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sarah Boisvert, Fab Lab Hub’s founder and the author of “The New Collar Workforce,” sees short-term and highly focused training as the key to closing the manufacturing skills gap. Fab Lab Hub is part of a national network of digital fabrication labs (“fab labs”), managed by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.

Boisvert, who spent 20 years running manufacturing companies, says specialized training can supply the skills that U.S. trade schools (long on the decline) and colleges cannot. This is also true for the people who service manufacturing equipment, especially as new technologies like 3D printing and laser manufacturing come into play.

“With newer tech, companies find out that there’s no one on the service side with a history of working on those machines,” Boisvert says.

At Fab Lab Hub’s two Santa Fe locations, students get hands-on training in operating 3D printing machines. Boisvert also offers classes on using CAD (computer-aided design) software to design industrial parts. On completion of Fab Lub Hub classes, which run about six weeks and cost about $250, students receive “digital badges,” or credentials that workers can share online with potential employers.

Intern Hank Wikle working with 3D printers. Image courtesy of Fab Lab Hub

The training solves several skills-gap challenges that Boisvert pinpointed after interviewing more than 200 manufacturing leaders for her book. For one thing, college isn’t for everyone.

“The debt involved in getting a two-year or four-year degree is exorbitant,” Boisvert says. “A lot of students need to work while going to school and have families to support.” An accelerated curriculum allows people to quickly gain a skill and get a job. The classes are also useful for workers who already have degrees in other disciplines but need additional training, she adds.

With newer tech, companies find out that there’s no one on the service side with a history of working on those machines. — Fab Lab Hub Founder Sarah Boisvert

In terms of other challenges, manufacturing executives told Boisvert that there’s a lack of candidates with three key skills: problem-solving, hands-on experience, and digital knowledge. All three are hugely important for would-be service technicians, she explains: At the laser company she used to own, problems were often related to software files, not the actual hardware, requiring technicians to troubleshoot software code. Manufacturing and service training needs to address all three capabilities, she says, if graduates are to leave with marketable skills.

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Boisvert encourages Fab Lab Hub students to spend time figuring out how to troubleshoot 3D printing problems, since that’s a skill they need to learn for future careers. The problem-solving exercises are what Hank Wikle, a student at Santa Fe Community College where Boisvert teaches, valued in the “Fundamentals of 3D Printing” course he took with Boisvert. He received a digital badge in 3D printing and is now an intern at Fab Lab Hub, helping Boisvert develop a workforce training program for digital fabrication.

“I like that the classes are very project-focused,” Wikle says. “You learn by doing, and when you encounter snags, you figure out how to overcome them. And once you have those problem-solving skills, you can transfer them anywhere.”

The short-term, practical training was a good match for Wikle, who has ADHD. “I struggle with traditional classes that focus on theory and not on hands-on practice,” he says. “In just a few hours a week, over several weeks, you can make very good progress this way.”

 What matters most is relevant skills, sometimes obtained through vocational training. — IBM CEO Ginni Rometty

The Fab Lab Hub training approach is gaining traction. In January, Boisvert’s Fab Lab Hub lab won a grant from America Makes, an institute for additive manufacturing, to create a digital program for using and servicing specific 3D printers. Training will be offered at 10 other Fab Labs around the country. The Los Alamos National Laboratory and the State of New Mexico are finalizing a grant for  digital badges for safety credentials for lasers, 3D printers and other digital tools.

Boisvert is also fielding requests from businesses, including one seeking training for laser machine service technicians, hoping to strengthen internal training programs with short-term training and digital badges. “The businesses can’t wait,” Boisvert says. “If education doesn’t change as fast as companies need it to change, they’ll solve the problem themselves.”

ABOUT Christine Kent

Avatar photoChristine Kent brings more than 20 years of writing and journalism expertise to her work for technology, consumer and corporate organizations.