Rethinking the Maker Movement

At the White House Maker Faire via Flickr. 

At the White House Maker Faire via Flickr. 

Both the maker movement and vocational training are in theory based on working with one’s hands, engineering and problem solving. Though there’s a stigma, and has been for a long time, associated with vocational training. Here's hoping the maker movement can change that, especially in Washington.   

The “maker movement” is of course our current cultural obsession with DIY projects, 3D printers, maker faires, and the reconnection with making things with one’s hands. Tinkering it used to be called. Most recently perhaps the most high-profile event of the maker movement happened when the White House hosted its first maker faire. 

There's also an associated effort to infuse our schools with the tools and lessons of the maker movement. Teacher organizations are now recognizing “making” as a powerful learning tool. A teacher friend of mine recently described a scene at his school where a 3D printer was shown off to parents at a parent-teacher conference night. It was busy printing a plastic version of the school’s logo. Everyone was, apparently, very impressed. 

Meanwhile, vocational schools, those traditionally associated with teaching industrial and hands-on skills to students with the goal of providing the training needed to get jobs after graduation, are being ignored.  

Vocational schools and students are almost always struggling for funding.  A 2011 New York Times article detailed the trouble facing vocational funding and a plan by the Obama administration to cut Perkins Grants, the primary vehicle for vocational scholarships, by 20 percent. The last time the bill was re-authorized in 2012, Congress allowed about 1.3 billion to go to grants. 

This as many factories struggle to find workers to fill skilled manufacturing jobs. A recent study found that “600,000 manufacturing jobs are left vacant because employers can’t find sufficiently skilled workers.” Whether it’s sewing jobs in North Carolina or metal shops in the Rust Belt, traditional manufacturing businesses are struggling to find skilled workers to fill open positions. 

A few places have recognized the importance of teaching technical and vocational skills. The city of New York has Pathways in Technology, which was praised by President Obama. Austin Polytech is another example of a school offering manufacturing skills that has been embraced by its city. And SUNY also announced a partnership with MakerBot to develop an innovation center.

But this still isn’t enough. 

We need to expand our understanding of what the maker movement is, and the federal government should step up its commitment to educating makers. Let’s think of the maker movement also as those people who get paid to actually make things, like factory workers, and those who go to schools, vocational schools, to learn how to make things, not just DIY basement tinkerers or those few prized technical schools.  

This shift is already happening in some places.

Recently I got to visit Knickerbocker Manufacturing in Queens. It’s a company that was started by raising $15,000 on Kickstarter. Three guys raised the money and took over the lease of an existing sewing factory. Now they’re staffed up and turning out quality, USA-made apparel for well-known clients like Kinfolk, The Hill Side and 3sixteen. In short, they made a business - proudly -  from making things. 

It’s understandable that the maker movement is thought of separately from vocational training schools. The maker movement is essentially about getting amateurs involved in projects. So it’s smart businesses for the businesses of the maker movement to target those amateurs to reach a bigger audience. And it’s savvy politics for President Obama to embrace the maker movement, and not necessary the old vocational programs. 

But smart business and savvy politics don’t necessarily bring great change. 

That there is some dignity to be found in building, designing and making something with one’s hands is the common thread held by both vocational education programs and the maker movement. 

And getting more people involved in making things is good and worthwhile. But in order for the maker movement to last, we need to remember that our maker culture is not something new, but in fact part of our rich manufacturing history. The one thing I hope the maker movement really builds, is this: a culture that celebrates the dignity of all makers, new and old.