From left: tCheck’s Lucky Perry (operations), Cord Lamphere (engineering) and cofounder Peichan Chang discuss alterations to the company’s spectrometer, which measures canibinoid levels.

Makers Wanted

As American manufacturing struggles and California employers face worker shortages, will investment in educational makerspaces help strengthen local industry?

Back Longreads Apr 3, 2018 By Karen Wilkinson

Peichan Chang is one of five co-founders of tCheck, a company that created a spectrometer to measure the potency of various cannabinoids in butters, oils and flowers. In 2015, when asked to join the startup and help create its first prototype, Chang turned to Hacker Lab’s Rocklin makerspace. Launched in partnership with Sierra College, it is one of Placer County’s only makerspaces and the first in the country to partner with a community college. There he took manufacturing classes including computer-aided design and laser cutting, and would go on to create additional prototypes for tCheck’s device.

A little over two years later, the company occupies 800-square-feet of Hacker Lab’s space, where the spectrometers are assembled and distributed internationally. Originally the size of a shoebox, tCheck’s product is now the size of an iPhone. The company employs 15 people and has sold more than 2,500 devices.

Related: Sacramento Valley Manufacturing Initiative representative on the local workforce  

Photos: Carefully Crafted

Despite tCheck being on the verge of outgrowing its current home, Chang hopes to maintain a presence at Hacker Lab, where he says he was able to tap into internal talent and access the tools needed to develop tCheck’s product. “It’s like a dream come true. Everything I needed to get past the initial prototype phase was right here at Hacker Lab,” he says.

The two-story 15,000-square-foot facility has a number of  amenities: 3D printers, welding equipment, laser cutters, computer numerical control machining, woodworking and CAD software — all available to members 24 hours a day for a monthly fee.  

California is putting a lot of faith, and money, into these makerspaces in the hopes that pairing them with community colleges will help fill an impending skills gap in the state’s already struggling manufacturing industry. Thanks to CCC Maker Grants, an initiative of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office Workforce and Economic Division, 24 colleges throughout California, five in the Capital Region alone, are adding makerspaces to their campuses this year.

“The skills gap is real. Employers need to find out how, in the classroom, we can teach these skills, so when a student gets a job they don’t need to be retrained or trained initially.”Steve Dicus, Sacramento Valley Manufacturing Initiative

It’s one potential solution to the nearly 3.4 million manufacturing jobs opening up nationwide as baby boomers retire, 2 million of which studies estimate will go unfilled. There are more than 1.2 million manufacturing jobs in California alone, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, many paying six-figure salaries. But for employers, filling those roles is increasingly more challenging. And while more educational makerspaces may pave the way for longer-term solutions, many Capital Region employers say the problem is better solved from the inside-out and are creating their own solutions.  

AN INDUSTRY IN NEED

“This millennial generation coming through didn’t grow up in the garage the way I did,” says Steve Dicus, who taught high school and college shop classes, worked in manufacturing trades and today is co-chair of the Sacramento Valley Manufacturing Initiative’s education committee. He is also the CCC system’s regional deputy sector navigator for manufacturing. Dicus believes makerspaces and manufacturing go “hand in glove,” that one won’t survive without the other, and both are critical to preserving the health of American manufacturing in the region, state and nation.  

In California alone, there are 39,000 manufacturing companies, with El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter and Yolo counties representing 3.5 percent of those, says John Anderson, director of operations at California Manufacturing Technology Consulting. Locally, the area’s top products are in computer and electronics, food processing and fabricated metal, he says.

The current skills gap is the result of a number of factors, including the knowledge-loss that occurs when experienced workers leave, a negative perception of the manufacturing industry among younger generations, a lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills among workers, and a gradual decline of technical education programs in public high schools, according to the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, which conducted a skills gap study in 2015.

“The skills gap is real,” Dicus says. “Employers need to find out how, in the classroom, we can teach these skills, so when a student gets a job they don’t need to be retrained or trained initially.”

THE MOTIVE FOR MAKING

Locally, American River College, Folsom Lake College, Sacramento City College, Sierra College and Woodland Community College were awarded grants totaling $2.58 million, or about 20 percent of total grants awarded, says Carol Pepper-Kittredge, statewide project manager for CC Maker, which is based at Sierra College. The funds go to a variety of uses, including equipment, personnel, marketing and community outreach, upgrading or creating spaces, holding special events, and student maker and residence positions.

In 2016, the Chancellor’s Office commissioned a study by the California Council on Science and Technology, which recommended the state create a network of 10 makerspaces linked to community colleges to prepare students for the innovation economy.

Related: UC Davis Beta Lab Studies ‘Maker Movement’ in Youth

Related: The Woodland Way

Private sector employers weren’t part of the study, and the potential impact on the job market wasn’t considered. However, Pepper-Kittredge says some members of the CCC Maker statewide advisory committee work for companies that offer internal makerspaces. They include Northrop Grumman in Los Angeles, Schilling Robotics in Davis and even Sacramento’s VSP — which are represented on the advisory committee.

Metrics for success —  including number of students, hours worked, faculty engagement, outreach activities, new curriculum development and internships coordinated — will be measured through quarterly reports.

“The tools are around manufacturing skills,” Pepper-Kittredge says. “It’s the starting place, the acceleration place, the R&D for manufacturing. Here they find possibilities they never dreamed of, and then school makes sense to them.”

The problem with viewing makerspaces as a solution to the manufacturing skills gap is that their innate purpose is to foster emerging technologies and talent, rather than fill current vacancies, Pepper-Kittredge says. “The makerspaces are the birthplace of the jobs of the future,” she says. “They’ve emerged organically to be entrepreneurial and to learn new technologies quickly.”  

Dicus says many of the employers he speaks to in the industry express frustration finding employees who arrive on time, can pass a drug test and stay on task for a considerable length of time. “That’s where the makerspace could become an integral part. It offers an appreciation for how and why things are made,” he says. “Many haven’t experienced the whole manufacturing cycle or process and that’s what the makerspace provides — that process and experience.”

Last year, the Brookings Institute published “Five Ways the Maker Movement Can Help Catalyze a Manufacturing Renaissance,” explaining that the next generation of manufacturing wisdom is more likely to bubble up from local experiments than trickle down from legacy institutions. It pointed to creating actual spaces for makers, engaging with educational institutions, tapping the private sector and offering opportunities as early as elementary school to “give kids access to modern production tools as a way to excite involvement.”

Hacker Lab instructors Ian Milward (left) and Heather Lee Lincoln (right) test out the vacuum forming machine, used to make things like candy molds.

Phillip Mally didn’t necessarily fancy himself a tinkerer, but two years ago he took a laser-cutting class at Hacker Lab, in lieu of class at Sierra College. At the time, he says that he, like many of his peers, lacked a sense of direction.

“One thing I’ve heard from many people is before they found Hacker Lab, they were quite lost in life, and particularly from the younger generation,” he says. “They’re just disillusioned with the current economic climate. And things are changing, so it’s really important to have places like this that can accommodate those changes faster than the college can.”

Today Mally’s full-time work is in consulting, which includes a year-long stint at tCheck assisting in the second generation device’s mechanical design. He also worked with PourAway USA, a Granite Bay-based design and manufacturing company that creates products to help separate liquid from trash or recyclables. For the past year, he’s been chief technical officer of My Safe Horse, a mobile surveillance company for the equine industry.

“Once I realized how powerful the tools were, how much you could do with them, it opened up my imagination to other possibilities, and other ways to make money,” he says.  

EFFORTS FROM THE INSIDE

Titan Gilroy, owner of aerospace CNC machine shop Titans of CNC, located in Rocklin, says the skills gap is at least in part due to a branding problem.

“When it comes to CNC machining and manufacturing, who is the hero for kids to look at?” says Gilroy. “You have to go back to Henry Ford. There is no hero in our trade. Because there are no billboards around manufacturing, no TV shows, no one understands you can make things here and make millions of dollars by solving problems.”

Gilroy is the star and executive producer of a reality show, also called “Titans of CNC,” aimed at engaging a new generation of builders and machinists. Because his advanced manufacturing shop turns out titanium rocket parts, a niche field, finding employees with the necessary experience is nearly impossible, he says.

“It is difficult in California to find experienced people. So we’ve had to make our own.” Bruce Gray, CEO, TSI Semiconductors

“CNC machining is an art passed through generations, it’s not like you get a degree in it,” Gilroy says. “We hire and teach them from the bottom. I teach people and in six months we got them working on complicated jobs.”

TSI Semiconductors in Roseville — the last semiconductor manufacturer in Northern California — does its share of grassroots recruiting and training. CEO Bruce Gray says he hires students out of Sierra College and makerspaces, and is active at job fairs. From maintenance technicians to operators of high-tech equipment worth multiple millions of dollars, he says his company “needs capable people coming in the door with the right skill set,” adding, “then we add another equivalent of a college education on top of that.”

“It is difficult in California to find experienced people,” Gray says. “So we’ve had to make our own” through enhanced on-the-job training, which can take three to five years.

Gilroy has created a free, online academy comprised of video tutorials and blueprints that teach computer-aided design, programing in computer-aided manufacturing, and how to use equipment of the trade. “We’re solving the skills gap from the inside out,” Gilroy says. “This is the United States of America, and the people who talk about [the manufacturing skills gap], they’re in suits. They don’t know how to make parts, so what do they know to do with the education.”

His curriculum is being used in high school and college engineering classes in the Rocklin area, and even at San Quentin State Prison, where Gilroy helped turn an old machine shop into an advanced CNC shop.

Jacob Sanchez, a 19-year-old recent graduate from Rocklin High School, took an engineering course that used Gilroy’s materials. He’s since been hired by Titans of CNC and received three raises in less than nine months on the job.

Sanchez says he was a “C-average” student and that teachers and administrators at his school “didn’t grasp the concept of going right out of high school, without college, into a machine shop.” But today he not only teaches Gilroy’s CNC academy material at Rocklin High on Saturdays, but also works with Sierra College teachers on implementing the curriculum.

For Sanchez, the training changed his life: “Once I knew what you could do with ingenuity and ideas, that I could make something that never existed, I could go to a computer, model it and make it, I just love that idea,” he says.

DON’T COUNT CALIFORNIA OUT

California lost about 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2012 — 842,180 jobs — according to a report by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Yet it remains a top manufacturing center in the United States, contributing more to the country’s manufacturing output than any other state, including Texas.

And while the Golden State has earned its reputation as the most highly-regulated and tax-heavy state in the nation, at least one local manufacturer is happy to call it home — going so far as to move part of his company back here after several years in Nevada.

John Coburn is CEO of GC Products, a 15-year-old architectural manufacturing company that specializes in building facades that can be seen at Folsom’s Palladio at Broadstone and Samsung’s San Jose headquarters.

For the past seven years, its manufacturing facilities were in Sparks, Nev. Over time, tech giants Tesla, Apple and Panasonic, among others, ate up commercial real estate and skilled workers. This caused wage hikes, an overwhelming demand for space and a talent shortage. So when Coburn’s lease was up and prices in Sparks looked ridiculous, he says it made sense to consolidate operations closer to home, where his company originally laid roots.  

“We couldn’t find qualified people there, and wages were higher,” Coburn says. “There was too much demand, and not enough supply.”

GC Products is transforming a 22,000-square-feet empty building by the Lincoln Airport into office and operations space, where Coburn plans to automate areas of production to increase efficiency. He also plans to hire 10-15 employees to fill advanced manufacturing jobs such as CNC machine operator and a CAD drafting position.

“We’re trying to step it up,” Coburn say, adding he hopes to grow his business 20-30 percent over the next two years, with more projects throughout the western United States.

Coburn minces no words about the difficulty of doing business in California (“Nobody moves back from Nevada to California — you gotta be stupid to do that,” he jokes). But he loves it here, and has found it easy to work with smaller government agencies such as the City of Lincoln and Placer County.

“I really like the Sacramento area. It’s got a lot to offer,” he says, adding, “I’m gonna fight instead of run.”

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