In the Age of the Skills Gap, Students Learn Tricks of the Trade at Chicago Nonprofit
Standing on an otherwise quiet stretch of Ravenswood Avenue on Chicago’s North Side — with a green barrier of vegetation obscuring the Metra tracks on the other side of the street — one can hear faint sounds of hard work being done.
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In a building that was once home to the Chicago Radio Laboratory in the 1920s, 6433 N. Ravenswood Ave. in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood is now home to the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center (CIADC).
Inside, one finds a variety of work being done by a diverse group of people: teenagers, retirees, artists, and individuals simply looking to learn how to make things or try something new.
Under the watchful eyes of instructors, high school students busy themselves in the welding shops, wielding welding torches as sunlight peeks cautiously into the workspace on a pleasant August morning.
On the second floor, students of all ages work with wood, carving and cutting and measuring amid the pervading aroma of sawdust.
Another floor up and one finds students learning the tricks of casting, with the results of that work scattered about the workspace: a defiantly clenched fist, stately busts and metallic chicken feet.
Founded in 2015 by Matt Runfola — a self-proclaimed steel guy who says his motto is “fabrication, fabrication, fabrication” — students come to the CIADC from as far north as the Illinois-Wisconsin border and as far south as western Indiana to learn how to weld, cast and woodwork under the tutelage of experts.
The workspace at 6433 N. Ravenswood Ave. houses tools like a CNC router, an English wheel, and casting molds of varying shapes and sizes.
In short, it is a place of innumerable possibilities, brought into the world by innumerable creative and technical decisions.
Chicago’s North Side is not exactly known for its industrial character — so how did this workspace across the street from Metra tracks come to be?
The CIADC’s creative missions finds its roots in the art of disassembly.
As a child growing up in rural upstate New York — “farm country” he notes, populated by “mechanical stuff galore” — Runfola enjoyed taking things apart.
“I just had an affinity for having my hands on stuff taking things apart,” Runfola said. “I raced motorcycles when I was young. Part of racing dirt bikes is you’re constantly breaking them, so it’s a lot of opportunity to pull them apart.
“I think it was with that the realization [came] that someone, somewhere designed everything on that motorcycle. I was very intimately involved with tearing that motorcycle apart and putting it back together week in and week out.”
That love of tinkering inspired a curiosity about design, eventually leading him to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he got his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Runfola wasn’t satisfied with “typical engineering” — he gravitated toward jobs that gave him access to shops where things are made, working on designing and prototyping.
“I started to whet my appetite with creativity,” Runfola said. “It was like ‘hey, design can be used to make things that I want to make, not just make things that other people made.”
That interest led him to the world of custom furniture and sculpture, which he worked in on the side. He also worked as a manufacturing engineer for a company that designs skateboards and snowboards.
But that experience prompted him to reconsider the best outlet for his passion.
“I realized at that time that the engineers, as much as we were making everything happen, we weren’t the creative geniuses behind the product,” he said. “It was marketing, and in that industry it’s very much marketing-driven.”
That realization brought him to Chicago, where he worked on the marketing side for Brunswick Corporation. Eventually, he moved on, pursuing a position as an introductory metal sculpture teacher.
“I really never looked back from that point,” he said. “I left the corporate world and focused for a number of years on my own product line of custom furniture … while I was teaching.”
That experience led him to open the CIADC as an outlet for those interested in metalworking, woodworking or casting, something he said was a “void” in the Chicagoland area.
In short, he founded the nonprofit to give people an “easier opportunity to explore the industrial arts.”
“People in high school, people outside of a university setting, do not have access to, not just working with their hands but working with their hands with these industrial processes,” he said.
During a tour of the facility, Runfola talked excitedly amid the clanging of metal and cutting of wood, lighting up when asked to explain the difference between TIG and MIG welding.
“We really go to great lengths to make it comfortable for people to cross the threshold to enter into our facility,” Runfola said. “We feel very strongly that once people are in a class and learning, 99% of people are going to fall in love with this type of work.”
Many younger students come into the shop not exactly knowing what they’re getting themselves into, Runfola said, but once they realize they can safely handle material to produce something of their own creation, it gives them satisfaction.
Cam White, 15, a high school student, is relatively new to the CIADC.
“In Chicago, it’s really hard to find places to do woodworking and metalworking,” she said during her third day of classes at the CIADC. “I was researching it because I wanted to do more hands-on things.”
White said woodworking was her primary interest, but she opted to take metalworking class to try something new. White said she isn’t sure if she would want to pursue a career using the skills she’s learning in the shop, but she does want to have her own home shop someday.
White said that among her friends, her interest in this type of work is unique.
“They’ll say ‘oh that’s cool,’ but they’re not interested in it,” she said. “They’re more interested in me doing it than actually them doing it.”
White said she’s not a “technology person,” adding that the type of “old school” work done in the shop might not appeal to other people in her age group.
“Now with all the industrial stuff and all the gaming and coding and stuff you can do in that realm, more of my friends lean to that side and less of woodworking and shop-type things,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tom Bittman, 70, retired after a career in commercial banking, first took classes at the CIADC in the fall of 2018.
“I enjoy making things,” he said. “I have a lifelong hobby of woodworking. I’ve taken some classes in woodworking at other places as well.”
While surfing the Internet, Bittman came across the CIADC and decided to check it out. Like White, he decided to try something new — after taking woodworking classes last fall, he delved into metalworking this spring.
“It’s a learning thing for me,” he said. “It’s entertainment, it’s learning, it’s a little adventure doing something new someplace new with new people.”
Last year, Bittman said he learned about all the ins and outs of woodworking, including cutting and shaping, in addition to use of the various machines in the shop.
“It’s the same thing with metal — just very different,” he said, laughing.
Of course, without dedicated, competent instruction, some students’ desire to learn could wane.
Olivia Jade Juarez, 27, works as an instructor and manager of CIADC’s welding and forging shop.
Jade Juarez studied sculpture during her time in art school using a wide range of materials, but did not work with metal much at that time.
Out of school, however, she worked at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, which had a sculpture department largely focused on metalworking tools.
Working as an assistant there, she had to quickly familiarize herself with the tools and techniques of metalworking.
Fortunately, she picked it up quickly.
“There’s this perception that metalworking is really rough and tumble and everything is super heavy,” she said. “I quickly realized there is a little bit of that, but it is more than anything precision and patience.”
She later worked as an assistant for metals sculptor Vivian Beer for a year, after which she decided to move back to her hometown Chicago.
She heard about the CIADC based on a recommendation from someone at Anderson Ranch, admitting that she first came to the center to use the space for her own work. However, she decided to take a class and eventually spoke with Runfola about taking on a teaching job at the center.
Jade Juarez said her favorite type of student is one who comes in with no experience.
“I’ve had a few elderly people come in and just to see them — it’s almost as if they renew themselves a little bit just to be handling flames and fire and welding, forging,” she said. “It’s really exciting to see them realize that they can still do things like that and that it’s not that far out of reach.”
Companies in industries that need workers to do these types of things — metalworking, in particular — are hoping that more people reach that realization.
The “skills gap” is something often bandied about these days — that is, that there are not enough skilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
According to a skills gap study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 2.4 million jobs could go unfilled between 2018 and 2028 as a result of the skills gap, amounting to a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion.
Runfola said the CIADC’s mission is not necessarily to give people the skills to move into careers in these types of fields. However, he did express hope that the pendulum will swing back in manufacturing’s direction.
“When it comes to skilled workforce and filling the voids, people are realizing that being in the trades is not because you can’t do anything else,” Runfola said. “I think that’s an important thing that people are realizing again.
“It’s almost like we knew that mid-2oth century and the latter part of the 20th century, but somehow we started forgetting that.”
In an increasingly tech-driven world, part of that drive to remember will depend on drawing interest from younger people, like White.
Whether it’s kids in the city or the suburbs, Runfola argued very few of them have the opportunity to do this type of work, at home or in school. To that end, Runfola noted the center offers a scholarship program based on financial need, through which qualifying families can receive 80% off tuition.
“That’s one way that we’re trying to remove roadblocks and get as many teens as possible in here,” Runfola said. … “Right now it’s about piquing their curiosity so at least it’s on their radar.”
Jade Juarez said the idea of making things is perhaps being lost among people in her generation.
“There’s a lot of things you buy that are already made,” she said. “There isn’t much critical thought or questioning about how things are made anymore.
“There’s a really deep disconnect between what you end up having or using and what the raw materials started out as. I think the culture is very different now — it’s just ordering stuff.”
While the modern consumer culture allows for ease of purchasing items at a click, the result is a dwindling self-sufficiency, she argued.
“Not many people know other people who are welders or carpenters or just people in the trades,” she said.
She argued one simple way to help reverse the decline of the skilled labor workforce is to reintroduce shop classes into high schools (she noted she did not have a shop class at her high school).
“Then you have that seed or a memory of having built something, so that later on when it’s more of a financial decision, you’re not going in completely blind,” she said. “I really hope that it shifts back.”
While craft work is not quite the same as the industrial trades, she called it a sort of “sister or brother” to it; she said a rise in do-it-yourself (DIY) projects is an encouraging sign of a general interest in making things.
“That kind of hunger for learning … could be cultivated more,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a hobby or this quirky thing you do, it can be your career.”
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While there is no easy answer or quick solution to the skills gap in the U.S., Runfola hopes the CIADC can do its part in its own small way.
“High-value manufacturing is flexibility, it’s being able to change product lines quickly and efficiently and you’ve got people that can adapt very easily,” he said. “In our small way, I feel that’s what we’re equipping people that come out of our classes with, that versatility.”
Manufacturing trends are often discussed in large, impersonal numbers: a skills gap of 2.4 million, for example (not much less than the population of the city of Chicago).
As such, attempts at reforming the system are often placed in the context of Big Change, whether it’s government-subsidized programming, changes in high school curricula or private sector spending on professional development.
While it may be true that such changes are needed to combat the so-called skills gap, the conditions for Big Change can sometimes be produced through incremental efforts on the ground.
“I feel like I was given throughout my whole career trajectory … I was given opportunities to learn, to be exposed to new things, to have people be patient with me,” Runfola said. “I feel like that’s what we’re doing here.”
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