Make-ing a difference: The rise of the Makers

Thomas Wilk says the movement addresses the skills gap at the grassroots level.

By Thomas Wilk, chief editor

If you follow daily reports about the state of manufacturing in the United States, it can seem like an endless alternating string of good news and bad news. One day a report emerges that the offshoring of manufacturing jobs is slowing down; the next day, news outlets report on new plants being built outside the U.S. in the (fill-in-the-blank) sector.

Manufacturing health is also starting to take center stage in the 2016 presidential campaign. As I write this, Democratic and Republican candidates are campaigning in Indiana, one of the hardest-hit states in terms of manufacturing job loss, with all candidates making sure that their positions and jobs plans are being promoted in advance of next week’s Indiana primaries.

The labor facet of this issue was explored recently by Andrew McGill, who analyzed 40 years of U.S. employment data for a story in The Atlantic. Among his conclusions were that automation and computing power behind the modern production line has both reduced the need for human capital as well as elevated the required level of education for entry-level employees.

“By 2014, more than half the employees in factory jobs had some amount of post-secondary schooling,” McGill writes, adding that “a well-educated workforce” can support the innovations that have uncoupled industrial output from staffing levels. “Unskilled workers of today are much more likely to go into the service sector, which pays less.”

The National Association of Manufacturers also has weighed in, estimating that 2 million U.S. manufacturing jobs are expected to go unfilled over the next decade, with manufacturers already reporting a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly skilled jobs.
This raises a question: How to inspire a workforce that may have less access to post-secondary education but who would like greater access to more-lucrative technical jobs?

Enter the Makers. This loosely affiliated group of serious tinkerers and hobbyists is increasingly taking on the challenge to engage students and workers of all ages with STEM subjects in less-formal settings than a school or workplace. Indeed, Makers celebrate and promote a mindset of technical creativity, invention, and collaboration that complements and augments those more-traditional spaces.

This month’s Big Picture Interview features two women who are deeply involved in Maker culture, and it’s exciting to learn what they and their peers are doing at the grassroots level to elevate the technical skills of U.S. workers.

If you’d like to know more about the Maker Movement, either visit the Nation of Makers website, check out Make magazine, or just ask around your workplace – someone will no doubt raise their hand to tell you about the latest Maker Faire they attended, or describe their latest project.

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