Episode 91

Reimagine Training


August 3rd, 2022

23 mins 54 secs

Season 2

Your Host
Special Guest

About this Episode

Augmented reveals the stories behind the new era of industrial operations, where technology will restore the agility of frontline workers. In episode 3 of the podcast, the topic is: Re-imagining workforce training. Our guest is Sarah Boisvert, Founder and CEO Fab Lab Hub, LLC and the non-profit New Collar Network.

In this conversation, we talk about re-imagining workforce training, industry 4.0., what do you mean by “New Collar” jobs? We discuss the mushrooming of Fab Labs. What skills are needed? How can they be taught? How can the credentials be recognized? .What has the impact been? Where do we go from here.

After listening to this episode, check out Sarah Boisvert's online profile as well as the New Collar Network:

Augmented is a podcast for leaders in the manufacturing industry hosted by futurist Trond Arne Undheim, presented by Tulip.co, the manufacturing app platform, and associated with MFG.works, the open learning community launched at the World Economic Forum. Our intro and outro music is The Arrival by Evgeny Bardyuzha (@evgenybardyuzha), licensed by @Art_list_io.

Thanks for listening. If you liked the show, subscribe at Augmentedpodcast.co or in your preferred podcast player, and rate us with five stars on Apple Podcasts. To nominate guests, to suggest exciting episode topics or give feedback, follow us on LinkedIn, looking out for live episodes, message us on Twitter @augmentedpod or our website's contact form. If you liked this episode, you might also like episode 3: How to Train Augmented Workers. Augmented--the industry 4.0 podcast.


TROND: Augmented reveals the stories behind the new era of industrial operations, where technology will restore the agility of frontline workers. Technology is changing rapidly. What's next in the digital factory? Who's leading the change, and what are the key skills to learn? How to stay up to date on manufacturing and industry 4.0.

Augmented is a podcast for leaders in the manufacturing industry, hosted by futurist Trond Arne Undheim, presented by Tulip.co, the manufacturing app platform, and associated with MFG.works, that is M-F-G.works, the open learning community launched at the World Economic Forum. Each episode dives deep into a contemporary topic of concern across the industry and airs at 9:00 a.m. U.S. Eastern, every Wednesday. Augmented — the industry 4.0 podcast.

In episode 3 of the podcast, the topic is Reimagining Workforce Training. Our guest is Sarah Boisvert, Founder and CEO of Fab Lab Hub and the non-profit New Collar Network. In this conversation, we talk about reimagining workforce training, industry 4.0, and what do you mean by new collar jobs? Fab Labs, what skills are needed? How can they be taught? How can the credentials be recognized? What has the impact been, and where do we go from here?

Sarah, how are you doing today?

SARAH: I'm doing well. How are you?

TROND: I'm doing fine. I'm excited to talk about reimagining workforce training, which seems to be an issue on your mind, Sarah. You are a founder yourself. You have been actively involved in advanced manufacturing. I understand part of your story is that your company manufactured and sold the Lasik eye surgery back in 1999. So you've been involved in manufacturing for a while. We're here to talk about something very exciting. You say new-collar jobs is the big focus. I know you didn't invent the term. Can you give me a sense of what new-collar jobs refers to, first of all?

SARAH: Sure. It is a term that was coined by Ginni Rometty, who was then the CEO of IBM. She's now the executive chair. And it refers to blue-collar jobs that have now become digital. And so many of our jobs...if you just think about your UPS man who now everything's not on paper, it's all in a handheld tool that he takes around on his deliveries. And all jobs are becoming digital. And so I thought that Ginny's term encapsulated exactly what's happening, and the technologies that we used to use just in manufacturing are now ubiquitous across industries.

TROND: You have also been instrumental in the MIT spinout project called Fab Labs. Just give us a quick sense, Sarah; what are Fab Labs? Not everybody is aware of this.

SARAH: Fab Labs are workshops and studios that incorporate many different kinds of digital fabrication. So we are taking the ones and zeros, the bits of CAD designs, and turning them into things that you can hold in your hand. And it covers topics like 3D printing, and laser cutting, and CNC machining. But Neil Gershenfeld, who founded the international Fab Lab Network, likes to say the power of digital fabrication is social, not technical.

TROND: You know, this brings me to my next question, what skills are needed? So when we talk about new-collar jobs and the skills and the workforce training, what exact skills is it that we need to now be more aware of? So you talked about some of them. I guess digital fabrication, broadly, is another. Can you go a little bit more into what kind of skills you have been involved in training people for?

SARAH: Well, when I first started this project, I had always been interested in workforce training, obviously, because I had a manufacturing company, and I needed to hire people. And we had worked with the community college near our factory to develop a two-year curriculum for digital manufacturing. But I had in mind exactly what I needed for my own company and the kinds of skills that I was looking for.

And so a lot of Fab Labs, because we have about 2,000 Fab Labs around the world, heard about this program and started asking me, "Could you make a curriculum for us?" And there were so many of them that I thought I needed to come up with something that is going to fit most of the Fab Labs.

And so I interviewed 200 manufacturers in all kinds of industries and from startups to Fortune 10 and so companies like GE, and Boeing, and Apple, and Ford, as well as companies in the medical device space. What they all told me they wanted was...the number one skill they were looking for was problem-solving. And that's even more important today because we're getting all these new technologies, and you haven't got some guy in the back of the machine shop who has done this before. And we're getting machines that are being built that have never been built before. And it's a whole new space.

And the second thing they were looking for was hands-on skills. And I was particularly looking at operators and technicians. They were also looking for technical skills like CAD design, AI. Predictive analytics was probably the number one skill that the international manufacturers' CEOs were looking for. And I got done, and I thought, well, this is all the stuff we do in Fab Labs. This is exactly what we do. We teach people how to solve problems.

And so many of our labs, particularly in places like Asia or Africa where there was tremendous need and not enough resources, necessity is the mother of invention. And so many of our Fab Labs invent amazing things to help their communities. And I thought, well, we don't need a two-year curriculum because the need for the employers was so extreme. I thought we need something more like what we do in Fab Labs.

TROND: And how can these skills be taught? What are the methodologies that you're using to teach these skills that aren't necessarily, you know, you don't need to go to university, as you pointed out, for them? But they have to be taught somehow. What are the methods you're using?

SARAH: Well, I did a lot of research trying to nail that down when I got done figuring out what it was people needed in the factories. And it seemed like digital badges were the fastest, easiest, most affordable way to certify the ability of a badge earner to work with a particular skill set. And they were developed by IBM and Mozilla probably decades ago now and are used by many organizations to verify skills.

And it's a credential that is portable and that you can put on your digital resume and verify. There is an underlying standard that you have to adhere to; an international standards body monitors it. And there's a certain level of certainty that the person who says they have the skill actually has it.

TROND: That's a good point because, in this modern day and age, a lot of people can say that they have gone through some sort of training, and it's hard to verify. So these things are also called micro certifications. How recent is this idea to certify a skill in that digital way?

SARAH: I think that these particular badges have been around for decades, and people like Cisco, and IBM, and Autodesk have been using them for quite a long time, as well as many colleges, including Michigan State, is one that comes to mind that has a big program. And they can be stacked into a credential or into a higher-level course. So we stack our badges, for example, into a master badge.

And that combines a number of skills into something that allows someone to have a job description kind of certification. So, for example, our badges will combine into a master badge for an operator. And so it's not just someone who knows CAD. They know CAD. They know how to run a machine. They know how to troubleshoot a machine.

TROND: So we touched a little bit on how these things can be taught. But is this a very practical type of teaching that you are engaged in? I mean, Fab Labs, so they are physically present, or was that kind of in the old, pre-COVID era?

SARAH: Well, yes, we were typically physically present with COVID. This past summer, I spent a lot of time piloting more online programs. And so, for our design classes, we can still have people online. And our interns 3D-print their designs, and then they can look at them via photography or video, if it's a functional design, and see how the design needs to be iterated to the next step. Because, as you know, it never comes out right the first time; it takes a number of iterations before it works.

And we just recently, this week, actually completed an agreement with MatterHackers, who are a distributor of tabletop 3D printers, to bundle their 3D printers with our badges. And so someone can then have a printer at home. And so, if you have a family and you're trying to educate a number of children, it's actually a pretty economical proposition.

And they offer two printers that are under $1,000 for people who are, for example, wanting to upskill and change careers. They also offer the Ultimaker 3D printer that we use pretty heavily in our lab. And it's a higher level with added expense. But if you're looking at a career change, it's certainly cheaper than going back to college [laughs] instead.

TROND: So I'm curious about the impact. I know that you started out this endeavor interviewing some 200 U.S. manufacturers to see that there was...I think you told me there was like a paradigm shift needed really to bring back well-paying, engaging manufacturing careers back to middle-class Americans. And that's again, I guess, pointing to this new-collar workforce. What has the impact been?

I mean, I'm sitting here, and I see you have the book, too, but you generously gave me this. So I've been browsing some of the impacts and some of the description of what you have been achieving over the past few years. What has the impact been? How many people have you been able to train? And what happened to the people who were trained?

SARAH: We've only been doing it a couple of years. And in our pilot, we probably have trained 2,3,400 people, something on that. And it's been a mix of people who come to us. Because we teach project-based learning, we can have classes that have varying levels of experience. So we have people who are PhDs from the Los Alamos National Lab who drive the 45 minutes over to us, and they're typically upskilling. They're typically engineers who went to school before 3D printing was in the curriculum. And they are adding that to their existing work.

But we get such a wide range of people from artists. We're an artist colony here. And we get jewelers, and sculptors, and a wide range of people who have never done anything technical but are looking to automate their processes. And so my necklace is the Taos Pueblo. And it was designed by a woman...and her story is in the book.

So I should add that the book you're referring to has augmented reality links to the stories of people. And she just was determined. She, I think, has never graduated from high school and is an immigrant to the United States. And she just was determined to learn this. And she worked with us, and now she designs in CAD, and we 3D-print the molds. And her husband has a casting company, and then he has it cast in sterling.

TROND: I find that fascinating, Sarah because you said...so it goes from people who haven't completed high school to kind of not so recent PhDs. That is a fascinating range. And it brings, I guess, this idea of the difficulty level of contemporary technologies isn't necessarily what it was years ago. It's not like these technologies take years to learn, necessarily at the level where you can actually apply them in your hobbies or in the workplace.

Why is that, do you think? Have we gotten better at developing technologies? Or have companies gotten better to tweak them, or have we gotten faster at learning them? Or is the discrepancy...like, this could be surprising for a lot of people that it's not that hard to take a course and apply it right afterwards.

SARAH: Learning anything comes down to are you interested? It comes down to your level of motivation and determination. A couple of things, I think the programs, the technical programs, and the machines have become much easier. When I started in the laser business, every time that I wanted to make a hole, I would have to redesign the optical train. And so I'd have to do all the math, so I'd have to do all the advanced math. I would have to put it together on my bench, and hopefully, it worked, and tweak it until I got the size hole I needed in the material I needed.

Today, there's autofocus. It's just like your camera. You press a button; you dial in the size hole you want, and away you go. And it's interesting because many of the newer employees at our company Potomac Photonics really don't have the technical understanding that I developed because they just press the button. But it moves much faster, and we have more throughput; we have a greater consistency. So the machines have definitely improved tremendously in recent years.

But I also think that people are more used to dealing with technology. It's very rare to run into somebody who doesn't have email or somebody who isn't surfing the web to find information. And for the young people, they're digital natives. So they don't even know what it's like not to have a digital option. I think that a number of things have come together to make that feasible.

TROND: Sarah, let me ask you then this hard question. I mean, it's a big promise to say that you can save the middle class essentially. Is it that easy? Is it just taking one or two courses with this kind of Fab Lab-type approach, and you're all set? Can you literally take someone who feels...or maybe are laid off or feels at least not skilled really for the jobs they had, the jobs they want, and you can really turn them into highly employable in a matter of one course? Has that really happened?

SARAH: In one course or one digital badge, it is possible to get some jobs, but it probably takes a combination of courses in order to have the right skill set because it's typically not one skill you need. It's typically a combination of skills. So to run the 3D printers, for example, you need CAD design. You need to understand design for 3D printing. And then you have to understand how to run the machines and fix them when they break.

So it's probably still a more focused and condensed process. So you could do our master badge, which comprises five or six badges, and get a job in six months for about $2,000. With one class, you could get a job part-time and continue the other badges and be paying for school while you're working in a field that is paying a substantial increase over working at McDonald's.

TROND: So give me a sense. So this is happening, in your case, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Where do we go from here? Is this going on anywhere else? What are the numbers? How many people are being trained this way? How many people could be trained this way? How easy is the approach you're taking to integrate and scale up? And is it happening anywhere else?

SARAH: Our non-profit, which is the organization that issues the badges, has, right now, I think, 12 or 13 members, and they were part of our pilot, and they are all over the country. So in my team, Lemelson, the Fab Lab in El Paso, the Fab Lab in Tulsa, MakerspaceCT in Hartford, Connecticut.

And so we have a group that just started this year was when I started the scaling after, I was really pretty confident that it was going to work. If it worked in Santa Fe, which is a small town and in a very rural, very poor state, I really thought if I could make it work here, we could make it work anywhere because there are a lot of challenges in our state.

So we started scaling this year, and each of our pilot sites is probably putting through their first cohort of 4, 5, or 6 badges, and they each have about 10 in that first cohort. We have a lot of requests for people to join our group and start issuing the badges. I've really come to see the success of our online program. And so, our online program is instructor-led at this point. And I'm working to create a self-directed program that people could do online with a tabletop printer at home. But we will still continue to scale the New Collar Network that actually disseminates the badges.

And I really see enormous interest. As you know, college enrollment has been declining for the last ten years. There has been an 11% decline in college enrollment. And people are looking for alternatives. And I think that I've had requests from school systems. I had a request from a school system back East that has 45,000 students that they want to get badges. We have had a request from a school system in the Midwest where they get a lot of teachers who are getting 3D printers, and they don't know what to do with them. And they'd like for us to train the teachers.

So I really see a huge opportunity. And these tools that we're using are not just being used in manufacturing. One of the people that we worked with on the HR side in research was Walmart. And their big worry is now they're putting in these janitorial robots. And their big dilemma is who's going to program them, and who is going to fix the robots when they're not working? And it's everywhere. It's not just am I going to get a job at that manufacturing company? It's also your local retail store.

TROND: Fantastic. This is very inspiring. I thank you so much for sharing this with us. And I hope that others are listening to this and either join a course like that or get engaged in the Fab Lab type Network and start training others. So thanks again for sharing this.

SARAH: Oh, it's a pleasure. It's a real mission, I think. [laughs]

TROND: Sounds like it. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

SARAH: Thank you.

TROND: You have just listened to Episode 3 of the Augmented Podcast with host Trond Arne Undheim. The topic was Reimagining Workforce Training. Our guest was Sarah Boisvert, Founder, and CEO of Fab Lab Hub and the non-profit New Collar Network.

In this conversation, we talked about reimagining workforce training, industry 4.0, and what you mean by new-collar jobs and Fab Labs; what skills are needed? How can they be taught, and how can the credentials be recognized? What has the impact been, and where do we go from here?

My takeaway is that reimagining workforce training is more needed than ever before. The good news is that training new generations of workers might be simpler than it seems. Practical skills in robotics, 3D scanning, digital fabrication, even AR and VR can be taught through experiential learning in weeks and months, not in years. Micro certifications can be given out electronically, and the impact on workers' lives can be profound. Thanks for listening.

If you liked the show, subscribe at augmentedpodcast.co or in your preferred podcast player, and rate us with five stars. Augmented — the industry 4.0 podcast.