Not long ago, Jen Guarino looked around her J.W. Hulme handbag company in St. Paul and realized something was missing.
"We lost a whole generation of skill development," Guarino said. After 30 years of outsourcing, the U.S. garment and textiles industry is short on workers who know how to cut leather, stitch silk and bind seams into beautiful purses and garments ready for the showroom floor.
With older textile workers retiring, "We are running at an incredible rate right now and we can't find skilled labor," Guarino said. Determined to fix the problem, she tapped community colleges, hired interns and then convened industry friends for a brainstorming session.
The result is the Makers Coalition, a group of 16 midwestern manufacturers determined to create jobs by teaching American students to use industrial cutters, steamers and factory sewing machines to fabricate garments, purses, satchels, bedding and other products, right here in the United States.
The first 22-week course starts Wednesday at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis. Tuition is $3,600, but most students will receive scholarships. The first class has 20 students.
While the Makers Coalition was founded by Guarino, the CEO of J.W. Hulme Co., she is not in this alone.
Lifetrack Resources, a St. Paul-based nonprofit, applied for and won a $75,000 Twin Cities United Way grant to cover scholarships. Dunwoody College of Technology helped with the curriculum, workshop space and some equipment.
Other businesses joining the coalition include handbag maker Urban Junket, the northeast Minneapolis luxury sleepwear company Sophia Graydon, dance-costume maker Kellé Cos., sewing contractor Airtex Design Group and Pierrepont Hicks, which makes men's silk ties, boots and blankets.
Students going through the program will learn to cut patterns, use industrial-grade sewing machines and handle materials ranging from dainty silks and chiffons to coarse leather and thick canvas.
"The real strength of this training is that it is being developed in close collaboration with industry leaders and local business owners," said Tatjana Hutnyak, business services manager at Lifetrack Resources. "Program graduates will gain a specific skill set that is a great fit and is in direct demand by employers."
Coalition businesses said they hope to hire graduates. Others hope they can develop enough new local talent to lure overseas sewing contracts stateside.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people out of work in the white-collar sector and beyond, while we have a crisis-level lack of skilled workers in U.S. manufacturing,'' Guarino said. "We need to quickly redress that balance and begin repairing manufacturing for the future."
Instruction will focus on industry standards, material handling, proper cutting and sewing techniques, equipment and tips of the trade. In addition to course work, students will intern at coalition businesses to gain hands-on experience.
Monica Nassif, owner of Sophia Graydon, said she's looking forward to training an intern in the art of handling fine and exacting fabrics.
Nassif's eight full- and part-time workers currently design, cut, pin and sew sleepwear samples in Minneapolis. Full production for the line of high-end cashmere, silk, linen and cotton lounge wear takes place in New York.
"They do some beautiful work in New York. But I'd prefer to have the work done here," Nassif said. "This Dunwoody program is really geared toward production."
Upon graduation, students will receive an industry certificate as a sewing and production specialist. The hope is that graduates will find permanent jobs in the garment or sewing industry that pay $12 to $16 an hour.
While classes formally start this month, the project has been a long time coming. Coalition members held their first brainstorming session nearly a year ago and then formed a board of directors.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725