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Makerspaces could encourage workers to ‘stay local and flourish’

Former Verso Co. paper mill employees work on CNC lathe machines as part of Allegany College’s Advanced Manufacturing Program. A makerspace planned for the county is designed to help other displaced workers acquire new skills. (Submitted Photo)

Former Verso Co. paper mill employees work on CNC lathe machines as part of Allegany College’s Advanced Manufacturing Program. A makerspace planned for the county is designed to help other displaced workers acquire new skills. (Submitted Photo)

Even though Western Maryland Works, a 30,000 square foot makerspace in Allegany County, couldn’t open as planned in early 2020 due to the pandemic, the space, packed with high-tech machinery and private offices, hasn’t gone unused over the past 10 months.

Soon after the pandemic’s onset, the space’s staff members set to work. They completed 3D printing orders, which customers could send to the printer remotely, and they offered tours. Like many makerspaces across the country, they manufactured PPE, and even invited nursing students to view the equipment and brainstorm ways it could be used to support medical workers.

It’s not exactly what the space was conceived for — Western Maryland Works was designed, originally, in light of the layoffs of hundreds of workers from the Verso Co.-owned paper mill in Allegany County in 2019. Equipped with modern tools and teachers who knew how to use them, the makerspace sought to train workers in marketable mechanical skills that could be put to use for other major employers in the area.

But the space’s pivot shows the versatility of makerspaces — they can be assets in an emergency, centers for community collaboration, educational laboratories and powerful economic engines.

That’s why advocates are pushing for legislation that would create makerspaces across Maryland, reaching urban, suburban and rural communities alike. Dubbed the Makerspace Initiative Pilot Program, this legislation passed through the House of Delegates unanimously in last year’s legislative session, but was tabled when the pandemic ended the session early.

The program would contribute funds over the course of three years towards nonprofits and government agencies that want to open and operate makerspaces, limiting how much money could be given each year to a single county in hopes of spreading the wealth.

Will Holman, founder and executive director of Open Works, a makerspace in Baltimore, helped to develop the bill and is one of its biggest cheerleaders. He cites research about Open Works economic impact as proof of the importance of makerspaces.

Completed by Coppin State University’s business school, the 2019 report indicates that, just that year, the makerspace had a $5.5 million economic impact on the city of Baltimore and a $9.5 million impact on Maryland, created 118 jobs and supported 55 small businesses.

“Up until now, people have been thinking of maker spaces as educational or hobbyist spaces … but there’s also this real economic argument to be made,” Holman said.

As part of the legislation, Open Works would help new makerspaces get their footing, assisting with things like architecture, operations and educational programming.

“You can look up a billion case studies about how to start a restaurant or car dealership, but no body of knowledge exists for makerspaces yet,” Holman said, adding that the goal would be to provide guidance without just duplicating Open Works’ model; makerspaces, he noted, have to be contextualized to the communities they serve.

When opening Western Maryland Works, for example, one element of Open Works — textile equipment, like embroidery and sewing machines — was foregone. Textiles simply aren’t a major industry in Allegany County, according to Matt Shipway, workforce development specialist for Allegany County’s Office of Community Services.

“The last thing we want is to train a lot of people to do a job where they have to leave the community to do that job,” he said.

To Del. Mike McKay, R-Allegany and Washington counties and the bill’s sponsor in the House of Delegates, makerspaces will be an important asset to any Maryland county due to the changing nature of the job market.

“Makerspaces work regardless of rural or urban because jobs come and go, and communities have to adapt to an ever-changing industry,” McKay said “The days of industries that have (existed) for 20, 30, 70, 100 years are gone … it’s almost a foregone conclusion that (workers) are going to change jobs three or four times.”

Makerspaces also give start-ups and young businesses a place to grow. Both Open Works and Western Maryland Works feature mini-offices that can be rented for less than the cost of a traditional office, where small businesses or entrepreneurs can utilize the tools in the space until they are able to afford to buy their own tools and move on to a larger office.

Educational programming at makerspaces, too, can boost the local economy by getting kids interested in local industries from a young age, encouraging them to stay in the area. This is especially significant for areas like Allegany County, which has experienced mass exoduses in recent years.

“If I can educate them and give them a good job, then they will stay in the area,” McKay said. “(This) is an opportunity to stay local and flourish.”

The pilot program, if passed, will allocate at least $450,000 per year to makerspace programs across the state for three years.

 

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