Ukrainian Immigrant Turns His Love of Making Things Into Unique Makerspace Facility
Gene Sherman, CEO and founder of Vocademy, knew at a young age that he was not destined for a college education and that working with his hands was his future. He and his family were political refugees from the Soviet Union, transplanted to Chicago in 1977.
“We were poor immigrants,” he said. “My first introduction to the world of making things was taking other people's discarded toys and fixing them to play with.”
His family moved to California in 1982. When Sherman started high school, he didn’t have an affinity for math or other subjects in which college-bound students succeeded. He did, however, excel at hands-on classes such as wood shop, metal shop and home economics.
At 16, Sherman worked in his father’s machine shop. As computers entered the industry, he took on the responsibility of learning the new machines. “By age 18, I'm running these expensive CNC machines for my father's shop,” he said. “I was working 60-hour weeks and making more money than anyone else I knew. I was learning an amazing trade, and I absolutely loved it.”
Later he traveled to his adopted country teaching others how to use high-end CNC machines. He saw all the great things people were making in different industries and heard how difficult it was for these manufacturers to find qualified, skilled workers.
“In the 1990s people thought everyone should go to college because ‘we don't make things in this country anymore,’” he said. “This was the seed that sprouted into the skills gap we have today. And it’s a travesty. Shop classes were being shut down and most schools stopped teaching these skills.”
After years of planning, in 2013 Sherman opened the Vocademy, www.vocademy.com, in Riverside, CA. It is what he calls “an Olympic Training Center version of a makerspace,” where 80% of the experience is focused on hands-on training in over a dozen advanced manufacturing disciplines, such as 3D printing, electronics and robotics, industrial safety, laser cutting, machine shop and CNC, welding and fabrication, and more.
Membership allows access to machines after class, in the evenings, or on the weekends so members can practice their craft. “We're not a trade school, we're a place where someone discovers what they love and learns the fundamental skills,” he explained. “We serve local schools, local companies, and everyone in our community.”
Vocademy was recently approved for its first federal and state apprenticeship program. The Maker Professional apprenticeship is a three-month program open to anyone over the age of 18 with a high school diploma or equivalent. The first month is about taking classes at Vocademy; the last two are shared between classes and working on a temp-to-hire basis with a local employer. After the three months, the student serves out his apprenticeship with the employer.
“I believe there should be a Vocademy in every city because in every city there are employers—Mom and Pop shops as well as big companies—suffering from a lack of good, qualified people,” Sherman said. “The manufacturing ‘dungeons’ are gone, and automation provides new opportunities for those who want to become part of the modern era of advanced manufacturing.”