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It was a matter of putting two and two together and coming up with four. America was experiencing a resurgence in the production of things “Made in the U.S.A.” Almost overnight, an industry that had for years struggled to survive against foreign competition was again in need of skilled workers, while many skilled workers were in search of work.
“We were having a very difficult time finding people who knew how to sew. And so out of that was born this group that created The Makers Coalition,” said Mike Miller, CEO, Airtex Design Group. The Coalition Miller speaks of is a group of businesses, educational institutions, non-profit organizations and service providers working together to build a trained American cut and sew industry. Its work to link skills with employment is a focus of the nationally broadcast KET series, Dropping Back In.
“It was about three years ago when the fashion industry latched onto American heritage. Barney’s in New York said ‘oh we love this! It’s handmade and it’s from Minnesota.’ And it was absolutely a fad at that point,” recalled Jen Guarino, a member of the Makers Coalition board. “But what happened with that fad was, it started to educate the consumer about quality and what we could actually get here in the states. What began as a fad became a category. So the demand for cut-and-sewn domestic manufacturing has skyrocketed. “
The seeds of the Coalition were planted at a networking gathering where the discussion centered on a workforce shortage in the industry. “Louise Jones from Lifetrack Resources came up and said ‘I think we should talk about finding some solutions to that.’ That led to meeting Debra Kerrigan from Dunwoody College and Tatjana Hutnyak from Lifetrack Resources,” Guarino said.
Kerrigan, Dean of Workforce Training at Dunwoody, a private, non-profit vocational college in Minneapolis, was intrigued but cautious, challenging Guarino: ““If you can bring nine or ten employers to the table and tell me that they all have that same need, Dunwoody will write a program for you.”
A roundtable discussion ensued. “We asked questions. We did surveys. Dunwoody helped us ask all the right questions and we proved that there was a need,” said Guarino. That need for skilled cut-and-sew employees equated to about 90 immediate openings in the industrial sewing industry, she said.
The search was on for training candidates. Some who came forward were homeless. Others had lost their jobs and had not participated in the workforce for several years. “A lot of times you’re looking at training adults who also have to take jobs to support families. Or there may be low-income individuals who have a lot of obstacles. So paying tuition is often really not an option,” noted Tatjana Hutnyak, Director of Business Development, Lifetrack Resources. “We were lucky to receive a $75,000 grant which enabled us to provide 15 full scholarships, including books and everything to the starting class.”
The scholarships were critical for many potential students, including Mona Wuertz who had balked when first learning of the tuition. “The first two classes, one was $1200, the other one was more like $4,500 and I’m going ‘Oh God. How am I going to pay for this? And I thought: I have to find a way.’ ”
Wuertz, who had not held a full-time job in 11 years, was among the 15 receiving full scholarships. “This is like close to 5-grand. I lost it. I was dumbfounded that somebody would believe in me that hadn’t even met me.”
Makers Coalition boasts 90 percent placement of graduating students. To get into the program, students must have a high school diploma or equivalency.