Vocademy – The Education Focused Makerspace (interview)

vocademy makerspace open day

Don’t you wish you had a maker space in your neighborhood? A place for education focused makerspace learning? The folks in Riverside California had their dreams come true when Gene Sherman opened Vocademy three years ago. Members access the education-focused makerspace that combines the best parts of school shop classes, trade schools, R&D labs, and dream garages. Members from 14+ can weld Halloween decorations, sew cosplay costumes, create Star Wars vacuum molded helmets, put their motorcycle on a lift to repair, and so much more.

I wanted to chat with Gene to dig a little deeper.  I share our conversation here with you.

What sets this Makerspace apart from the rest?

It is the drive and vision of owner Gene Sherman.  He wanted to bring back ‘shop class’ to a culture where academics and University education is the prime goal.

Gene Sherman Founder of Vocademy makerspace

He told me..’In High School between the 1800’s and mid 1980’s students would be taught ‘shop class’; Home economics, wood shop, sewing or metal shop.  In the 80’s the education system decided that shop class was outmoded and that every student should go to University’.  Gene Sherman was in high school in the 1980’s and he did not feel he was an academic.  He got his A’s and B’s in shop class and his D’s in Math.

He was able to build a manufacturing career on that shop experience. As a manufacturing trainer, Gene kept hearing the same thing from the businesses; there weren’t enough skilled people to do the work.

The cutting of shop class had created a decline in skilled workers.

The effect of removing trade school was two fold;

  • High School completion rates plummeted (again..not everyone is academic)
  • It created a skills gap in the manufacturing industry.

So, according to Gene, in the 90’s schools were scrambling to bring back classes but there were no instructors. Though an article in forbes.com back in 2012 suggested that the trend to do away with shop class was still continuing.

Gene could see what was happening and it frustrated him because he thought to himself, ‘what would I have done if I had been schooled today?’.  ‘I would have been a failure’ he told me candidly.

He knew first hand the value of hands on classes so he decided to go to schools to see if he could persuade them to let him start a vocational education program. Their answer, time and time again, was no. He then worked for five years at a University, in an instructional lab. There were no hands on skills classes available to the students. Again he called to the board, ‘let me teach’, again the answer was no.

He knew he had to do something to bridge the gap and help students whose abilities were better served to a manufacturing career. He left his job at the University and decided to open up a skills shop. He’d make it accessible to ANYONE. The only criteria? Just be over 14 years of age. From this Gene created Vocademy. His vision was clear. He wanted to bring back shop class. The details took time to evolve. Through experience, he learned ‘it’s not what we do but how we do it’.

vocademy maker space education sewing craf

Classes are offered during weekdays and evenings and weekends are open for people to practice their skills. People of all ages, and from all walks of life turn up to learn a skill in class. A delighted 76-year-old woman told Gene the other day that she was so grateful because if she had not gone to a wood shop class here then she’d have most likely gone all her life not knowing what it would be like to make something.

Schools and businesses send their students to Vocademy to be taught wood working, metal working, welding, design, programming, crafts, machine shop, sewing, and textiles ..these are just some of the comprehensive list of classes. The schools report that these students would have probably dropped out of high school had they not had this training available as part of their curriculum. 

Gene didn’t think he was good at mathematics as a teenager, but he learned the value of math indirectly through manufacturing. He is now offering the next generation this same lesson. He really empathizes with students who struggle in a traditional school setting. He is clearly committed to this project for those students. “These classes enable people to change career, develop a new career, gain skills for their own personal life dreams. They can get better jobs, jobs more suited to their innate talents and they can add these skills to their resumes”.

Vocademy’s Focuses on Training and Classes

vocademy Gene Sherman at Ted

What makes Vocademy different from the 4,000 Makersspaces in the US is the traditional model of a makerspace is more like a gym; based on membership and they don’t offer as many classes as Vocademy does.

At Vocademy classes make up 80% of their revenue and 20% are from memberships. This business model is somewhat unique in the Makerspace industry. Many have tried to rely on just membership fees and struggle, as students are much more likely to continue to pay if they are successful, and to be successful they need classes, coaching and a real sense of community. It seems Vocademy has found a formula that works.

Gene likened Vocademy to an Olympic training center, with training on a fundamental level. He coaches his students to push through their initial fear and trepidation as they learn new skills. If they break something or it doesn’t turn out they way they expected, Gene and his team show them that this is all part of the process. They tell students, ‘Failure is a lesson’. You learn from it. He encourages them to question why didn’t that work? What would I do differently next time?

What elements do you contribute to Vocademy’s success?

From what Gene told me, he creates a space where all are welcomed. 40% of the attendees are women. 55% of his staff are women. Something he is proud of.  ‘These classes enable people to change career, develop a new career, gain skills for their own personal life dreams.  They can get better jobs, jobs more suited to their innate talents and they can add these skills to their resumes’.  Gene and his staff encourage people to give things a go and try stuff out.  ‘Failure is a lesson’.  You learn from it.  He encourages them to question..why didn’t that work? What would I do differently next time?

The State of our Manufacturing Industry

Our manufacturing industry today. Our society, businesses, need a skilled workforce. According to a 2016 article in bloomberg.com ‘Almost 3.5 million manufacturing positions will need to be filled over the next decade as baby boomers retire, and 2 million of those jobs could remain vacant because of manufacturing’s fading appeal to millennials, according to a 2015 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. The dilemma could be especially acute for Boeing, where about 35 percent of the 29,645 machinists in the company’s Seattle industrial hub are 55 or older. By contrast, only 23 percent of the 15.3 million Americans working in manufacturing are in that age group, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.’

Vocademy and the Vision for the Future of Education Focused Makerspace

Gene has a message for parents, “go and tell your schools that we need this for all of our children”. Maybe in numbers schools may start to listen. Until then we will have to rely on entrepreneurs like Gene to and smart investors to support the expansion of community makerspaces.

The model is working and Gene plans to extend Vocademy to reach across the USA. He wants to see 1,000 Vocademy centers available. I hope the investors start lining up to be part of the upsurge. With only $10,000 in initial funding from the state, Gene has been a powerful force to building and grow his vision. He didn’t do it alone. He credits much of its success to his team who share his passion and vision.

Makerspace Apprenticeship Program

Vocademy is now offering a basic certification apprenticeship program for their education focused makerspace, that is recognized by the Workforce development federal fund.  

They will be launching the Maker Professional Program very soon. Part of California Community Colleges, it is a Federal and state recognized Apprenticeship program that teaches a breadth of hands-on skills. A 3-month training program that also places people with companies for on the job training. The amazing part is that this program is open to anyone over 18 (and with a high school diploma) and costs ZERO! 

The organization that they are partnering on this is called: Made Right Here.  

Over the next few months, they will also be offering stackable Professional Certificates in a number of their class subjects.


If you want to go and check out Vocademy they are in Riverside, California.  If you want to know when other Vocademys open then perhaps sign up to their website to get their news updates.