In 2012, New York Times writer Thomas Friedman visited and wrote about a small Minnesota-based manufacturing company whose forays into the aerospace and military spheres had shifted its work into a higher-tech realm of welding. Noting this shift, Friedman wrote: "Who knew? Welding is now a STEM job …"

Author Sarah Boisvert employs this anecdote in her 2018 book The New Collar Workforce to illustrate the transformation of manufacturing jobs into ones that utilize science and technology, as well as the training gaps that must be filled in order to meet the needs of the changing workforce.

These needs also drive Boisvert's work as founder of Fab Lab Hub, which is part of the MIT-based Fab Lab Network. Fab Lab Hub operates labs in Santa Fe at Santa Fe Community College and the Santa Fe Business Incubator. Like the other fab labs around the country, Santa Fe's all have 3D printers, laser cutters, computer numerical control (CNC) machines and vinyl cutters, all of which are tied together with computer-aided design, aka CAD.

This fall, she will teach 3D printing courses through SFCC's Continuing Education program, both of which will allow students to earn "digital badges," one tool, Boisvert says, in helping train people to enter a swiftly changing workforce. That training requires learning digital skills, but more importantly, the critical thinking to adapt to new technologies as they emerge.

Boisvert heard about those needs first-hand when she interviewed 200 manufacturers across the country for her book in order to understand what skills employers needed. She says 95% of the people she spoke with said the top skill needed was problem-solving capacity, followed by hands-on experience, CAD and, finally, 3D printing abilities.

"I thought then, well, that's what we do in fab labs," Boisvert says. While initially she envisioned developing a two-year curriculum, the workforce needs were so pressing, she instead developed the project-based digital badge program: short and affordable skill-specific trainings, which upon completion, provide people employable skills, and perhaps spur them to continue acquiring more skills.

Fab Lab Hub founder Sarah Boisvert will teach two digital badge courses related to 3D printing this Fall through the Santa Fe Community College’s Continuing Education Program.
Fab Lab Hub founder Sarah Boisvert will teach two digital badge courses related to 3D printing this Fall through the Santa Fe Community College’s Continuing Education Program. | Tira Howard

"What has happened in education is we have put less emphasis on vocational training and we've pushed people towards college because all the studies say with a four-year degree you can earn so much more money and have a better life and a better career," Boisvert says. Subsequently, "people stopped going into the trades" while at the same time workers in those fields began to retire without anyone to replace them. The digital transformation of manufacturing further deepened the gap. In its 2018 Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum estimates 75 million jobs will be "displaced" by increased use of machines, but 133 million "new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of [labor] between humans, machines and algorithms."

Boisvert illustrates these shifts by recounting a story told during a panel she moderated for the National Governors Association. A Washington state government employee, she says, talked about robots that were being used to clean a Walmart in Seattle. Those robots, Boivert points out, "don't take care of themselves … in today's world, we need people to interact with the robots; people have to design them, program them and fix them when they're sick."

Santa Fe also expects to host the national New Collar Network's New Collar Workforce Summit on Nov. 4-6, which will drill down into the digital transformation of blue collar jobs. Boisvert's decades of experience in this realm began as co-founder of Potomac Photonics, a laser manufacturing company she sold in 1999 and for which she continues to consult. But her passion is rooted even farther back to childhood. Growing up in a New England textile town, she says, rooted her understanding of the importance of the middle class, and informs her view of how the loss of trades also has hurt the country as a whole by creating widening schisms between the college educated and those who pursue trades. Those schisms have made it harder for people to support their families, as well as led to increasing disenfranchisement.

"We have devalued a part of our population," she says, "and it's wrong." The new-collar jobs of the future, she notes, such as CNC machinists and welders, pay well and offer good benefits.

"If we can find opportunities—for people, for our communities—that don't mean they go to college and end up in debt but end up with engaging, fun, inspiring jobs that pay well where they can support their families, then we can bring back the middle class. And I think if we can do that, we'll have more harmony."

Fab Lab Santa Fe founder Sarah Boisvert will teach two digital badge courses through Santa Fe Community College’s Continuing Education program this fall: Design for 3D Printing Digital Badge Sept. 3-Oct. 8 and Operation of FDM 3D Printing Technology Oct. 29-Dec. 3. More info available at: https://www.sfcc.edu/offices/continuing-education/