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Makers on the move

Business, Industry News | November 1, 2014 | By:

The Makers Coalition and IFAI join forces to train—
and place—a skilled workforce.

Talk to just about any manufacturer of sewn products and you’ll hear the same thing: finding skilled sewers is one of the most difficult things about running this kind of business. Now, thanks to The Makers Coalition (TMC), Minneapolis, Minn., and its new partnership with the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), that skills gap is about to change.

TMC is a coalition of businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and service providers working to build a trained cut-and-sew industry in the United States. IFAI is a 102-year-old trade association with more than 1,500 corporate members working in the specialty fabrics marketplace. At the Specialty Fabrics Expo in October, the two organizations announced an agreement to partner on a nationwide workforce development initiative.

The need

“There is an on-shoring trend in the United States that is creating a demand for skilled machine operators. At the same time, there is a shortage of people who have been steered into manufacturing careers and trained to operate equipment,” says Mary Hennessy, president and chief executive officer of IFAI. “As a local group of manufacturers, TMC has had phenomenal success, and wants to play a role in helping other communities address this important issue.”

The concept for TMC was the result of a conversation between Jen Guarino, founder of TMC and then CEO of J.W. Hulme Co., St. Paul, Minn. (a manufacturer of sewn leather goods), and Tatjana Hutnyak, director of business development for St. Paul-based Lifetrack, a nonprofit that provides employment counseling in addition to other community services. “We were at a networking event and Jen told me she was struggling to find sewers,” Hutnyak (who is now board chair for TMC) says. “We also learned at that meeting that there was no training available.”

The two began putting together the coalition shortly after that first conversation. In February 2012, TMC held its first meeting to plan logistics and curriculum development, and launched its first training in January 2013 at Dunwoody College of Technology, Minneapolis, Minn. “At our agency we work with a lot of immigrants and refugees, who made up much of the student body of the first training,” Hutnyak says. “By the third training we were also getting young entrepreneurs—some of whom already have college degrees but came to the training because they want to create and make things. Several students have started their own businesses.”

The vision

The resurgence of understanding the value of making things is a full-blown movement—dubbed The Maker Movement. The Maker Movement is, in part, a trend toward self reliance. It includes entrepreneurs who are starting their own small businesses dedicated to creating and selling self-made products. Those in the specialty fabrics industry have never forgotten how important manufacturing is, but now it seems the broader population is catching on as well.

The scope of industry benefits TMC set in motion by developing this training will broaden now that TMC and IFAI have created a partnership. TMC will continue to exist as a foundation with its mission of developing curricula and coordinating with training institutions, workforce development agencies and economic development organizations. IFAI will create a new division (one of 14 that serve specific member initiatives and markets) to be called the Makers Division, and will seek interested companies to support the training programs with industry expertise, trainers, apprenticeships and job placement.

“This partnership opens up our membership to a whole new demographic of manufacturer that we really have not attempted to serve previously; that is, people who are doing sewing manufacturing in the U.S. but not necessarily industrial textiles,” Hennessy says. “There is a thriving community of sewing professional manufacturing companies in the U.S., but until now they really didn’t have an association to support them.”

The benefits

The Makers Division will benefit companies that manufacture industrial fabric products as well. “We will be posting a jobs board for students who graduate from the training,” says Andrew Aho, IFAI director of membership and divisions. “Our Makers Division member companies will have first access to those students and provide an internship opportunity for them.” TMC has also partnered with East
Lansing, Mich.-based Prima Civitas, an economic and community development organization, to develop a national certification program for students.

IFAI’s Industrial Fabrics Foundation (IFF), which provides scholarships for higher education and grants for research, development and industry awareness, will be dedicating some of its scholarship money to train students. “Manufacturers spend thousands of dollars training their employees because there has been no school,” says Amy Bircher, vice chair of IFF and president of MMI Textiles, Westlake, Ohio. “The IFF plans to create a match program to support this training. We have a lot of funds that we haven’t used because we hadn’t found the place to use them that best supports the industry. Using the funds for sewing training scholarships makes so much sense. It will benefit all of our members—and the industry.”

The newly formed Equipment Division of IFAI (EQP) is in the process of establishing goals for how it can support the training efforts as well.

Currently there are training programs in Minneapolis, Minn., and Detroit, Mich. Classes in Milwaukee, Wis., are scheduled to begin in Jan. 2015. “The Makers Coalition Foundation has had inquiries from around the country about starting training,” Aho says. “The Makers Division is in the process of identifying a critical mass of members with the need for skilled sewers in other cities.” Once the division has identified the cities with the greatest need the foundation and its partner will go in and organize relationships with the educational institutions and state training agencies.

“No matter what pocket of the country you’re in, the need for skilled sewers is talked about,” Bircher says. “This is a grass-roots effort combined with the experience of an industry association. It’s a win-win for the industry.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn., and a frequent contributor to the Review.

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