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Genie Out of the Bottle

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

After attending the 2018 USA Fab Lab Network Symposium recently, I was happy to see nearly all USA Fab Labs are engaging youth from K - 12 grades in the "maker movement." Wisconsin is working on a substantial movement to build a Fab Lab in each K - 12 school district. The good news is that these kids, empowered by the self-efficacy increases of learning by making, will be much better equipped to enter a world where traditional ways of doing business, including manufacturing, are being turned upside down. Manufacturers and communities betting their future economies on repetitive manufacturing jobs will discover increasing difficulty in finding workers willing to do that kind of work. Today's world is much different than that of our grand and great-grand parents that went to work in factories in the early 20th century. The genie is coming out of the bottle for today's kids with every Fab Lab experience as they learn to become creative problem solvers wanting to do meaningful work in their lives. They are not going to be satisfied with traditional manufacturing jobs, doing repetitive, non-meaningful work every day. 

Not So Easy Back Then (1905 working for Henry Ford) 

In the early 20th century, making a living and providing for a family wasn't so easy. As the country continued to recover from the devastation of the Civil War, a factory job, such as those Henry Ford offered, although repetitive, paid enough to provide for families and many were satisfied doing that kind of work. 

The Repetitive Work Factory Model Worked for 60 - 80 Years 

Despite the Great Depression of the 1930's and the advent of labor unions to improve working conditions, the repetitive work factory model remained intact. The educational model was changed to provide workers for the factories and the nation's business schools taught people how to be managers in the large corporations. Vocational and work-force training programs were developed to teach people how to do the repetitive work and a fast and efficient manner. 

Internet Advent and Fall of the Wall Changed All 

In the 1980's and 1990's the Internet and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union gave people around the globe a hunger to produce products for the vast American market and they were (and are) willing to work in repetitive jobs for much less money than their American counterparts. Somewhere along the line, we decided the answer was for everyone to have a college degree to a point that today, half of college graduates can't find the work they believed would result from their degree. 

Work Force Training Remains Even As Youth Lose Interest in Manufacturing 

Today, some say "Everyone doesn't need college. We need to bring back vocational training programs for those not smart enough to get a college degree." OK, they don't quite say it that way but that's the message that comes across to the students that don't do well in the one method used in our educational models for the last 100 years. Most students today are not interested in manufacturing jobs, as they perceive them as dirty and repetitive, regardless of whether they go to college or not. Meanwhile, experiential learning, the learning of Fab Labs and Maker Spaces, tells us most students that don't do well in traditional academia, are really very smart; they just learn in different ways. 

Closing the Gap 

How do we close the gap between the work that's needed and the work that youth is willing to do? It's the work in our factories that needs to change. Automation, robotics and lean manufacturing methods will change the work while making companies more competitive. The work will involve a variety of skills and require the critical thinking and problem solving skills that result from the experiential learning possible in a Fab Lab environment. The genie is out of the bottle and we'll likely not see a generation anytime soon willing to do the repetitive factory work of the past. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at or Twitter @jimcorrellks. 

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