San Francisco Puts Cash Behind High-Tech Workforce Training

A $300,000 allocation from the city to trade group SFMade will go toward training disadvantaged residents for manufacturing jobs that use 3-D printing and robotics.

by J.K. Dineen, San Francisco Chronicle / January 16, 2019
Shutterstock/Andrey Armyagov

(TNS) — Advanced manufacturing is exploding across the Bay Area, with about 650 companies using 3-D printers and computer-controlled machines to produce everything from robots to eyeglasses to drones to backpacks.

But for most residents the fast-growing sector — and the skills needed to join its workforce — remain a mystery. Now San Francisco Mayor London Breed is trying to change that.

The city Office of Economic and Workforce Development has allocated $300,000 to SFMade, a trade group representing San Francisco makers. The money will be used to train disadvantaged residents for jobs in advanced manufacturing, a fast-growing sector that pays above minimum wage but has struggled to attract enough qualified workers.

The training program will be run out of a space at 150 Hooper St., where the nonprofit Humanmade is preparing to open a training, manufacturing and prototyping studio and education center.

While $300,000 doesn’t sound like a lot of money in a city with an $11 billion budget, it’s enough in the first year to allow 45 San Francisco residents to be trained for a new generation of jobs that include 3-D printer operators and rapid prototyping engineers or responsibility for operating and maintaining computer numerical control machines — known as CNC mills — that cut, carve and mill wood, plastic, foam and aluminum. If the program is successful, it probably will receive more money next year, which would fund more trainees.

The program will consist of three 24-week cohorts consisting of four weeks of employment preparation, eight weeks of skills-based training and 12 weeks of paid, on-the-job training hosted by local manufacturers. Finally, training center staff will work with local manufacturers to place the graduates in jobs.

“This has been a kernel of an idea for a while, and I’m thrilled the city is ready to come forward with it,” said SFMade CEO Kate Sofis, who added that the program is something former Mayor Ed Lee had talked about frequently before he died in late 2017.

She said the project would provide “pathways to equity through manufacturing.”

If the pilot is successful, it will become the city’s fifth workforce training program. The city currently funds training programs in four sectors: construction, technology, health care and hospitality.

These programs served nearly 1,300 disadvantaged job seekers in fiscal year 2017-18, including 494 in hospitality, 356 in health care, 253 in tech and 183 in construction. About two-thirds of the trainees found full employment after graduating from the programs, according to Joaquin Torres, who heads the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

“These programs are directly in alignment with the opportunities Mayor Breed seeks to create for residents in growing industries, particularly in industries that can provide advancement and livable wages,” Torres said.

The program would be a godsend for manufacturers like Topology, a company that designs and manufactures custom-fit eyewear, said CEO Rob Varady. While new technologies have allowed manufacturing to rebound in San Francisco — the sector has grown by at least 10 percent each year since 2010 — this new generation of makers won’t be able to stay here unless there are trained workers ready to fill the jobs.

“We can’t find enough people with experience in these new methods, so the training that (the program) will provide is integral in equipping the area with the labor force ready to seize this new opportunity,” he said.

The program will focus on workers from economically depressed backgrounds, particularly from the southeast neighborhoods of San Francisco. Varady said he has already had success hiring workers through a privately funded program called CEO Works, which helped incarcerated men and women to find jobs when they are released from prison.

It was through CEO Works that Varady found line operator Jerry Harmon. Five months into the job, Harmon said he loves spending his days using laser cutters and computer-controlled milling machines to carve custom eyeglasses out of plastic and stainless steel. It’s not easy work, but it’s a good job that pays above minimum wage. And for Harmon — who is 39 and was looking for a career after having been in prison — it’s not just a second chance but an opportunity to build a meaningful life in an exciting sector.

“It is high pressure — I’ll tell you that,” said Harmon, who lives in Oakland. “I enjoy it because it keeps me busy. It’s a good work environment. At first it’s intimidating looking at the machines, but if you just pay attention to detail, it’s nothing you can’t learn. Just don’t go off and start pushing some buttons that you don’t know nothing about.”

Dan Kan, co-founder of Cruise Automation, an autonomous driving technology firm, said the company is looking forward to hiring graduates of the advanced manufacturing training program.

“Creating an opportunity for people to develop their skills to participate in the modern economy will have an enormous impact for the city,” he said.

Entry-level advanced manufacturing jobs generally start at about $20 an hour, 25 percent higher than San Francisco’s $15 an hour minimum wage.

Meanwhile, final touches are being put on the Humanmade workshop at 150 Hooper, where the first group of trainees will report to duty in the early spring. The space has a wood shop and a metal shop-machine shop with both CNC and manual mills, routers and lathes. It also has an electronics lab and textiles area, as well as digital production equipment such as 3-D printers and professional-grade laser cutters, according to Humanmade CEO Ryan Spurlock.

“We have a shop that is fully built out — we are only waiting on the permit so we can open up for business,” he said.

Harmon said that, given the training, advanced manufacturing could create opportunities for a lot more folks like him.

“It’s not just a program, it’s a career, a lifelong skill, it’s everything,” he said. “I think it’s well on its way to replacing the old factory jobs that are gone.”

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.