n Lynchburg, Virginia, there lies a makerspace unparalleled in the region. The two-floor, 12,000-square-foot workshop called Vector Space has an electronics and computer lab, a blacksmithing area, rapid prototyping area, textile room, welding and sheet-metal section, and more. Co-founders Elise and Adam Spontarelli stock the space with almost 60 specialized tools from a 3D printer to a CNC plasma table.
The makerspace operates through membership. You pay to join and from there can use the space 24/7. Executive Director Elise Spontarelli says some people use the woodworking supplies for their own home projects, while others might create merchandise for their business with the screen printing machines. Spontarelli estimates that of their 200 members, 30% are entrepreneurs or run a small business.
But Vector Space has a much larger impact on its community than just having the physical tools needed for projects. It also partners with local community organizations for a variety of workforce and educational opportunities including the local high schools and Central Virginia Community College (CVCC) to provide credit and enrichment.
Vector Space runs Women in Machining. Three organizations partner in the effort: City of Lynchburg, Non-Traditional Occupations for Women (N.O.W.) and Vector Space. Vector Space initially tried to fund the program by applying for a Small Business Administration grant, but when that fell flat the city didn’t want to give up on the initiative.
HireLynchburg picked up the project and funds the 12-week course. N.O.W. works to recruit participants and partners with the Jubilee Family Development Center to help the trainees with childcare and transportation. Other nonprofits and employers work with Vector Space to promote the program.
The first cohort of machinists rolled through in 2020. There have been two more runs of the program since with new partners joining each time. The goal of Women in Machining is to reskill women into higher paying careers with more longevity. Centered between Roanoke and Richmond along Highway 460 in south central Virginia, Lynchburg has long been a hub of manufacturing in the region, but women fill very few of those jobs.
“The women that we typically see are usually closer to forties in age and they’re looking for a career. They’ve found themselves in occupations that are in the food service and retail industries … and they’re usually employed in a field that doesn’t really have a growth potential for the future,” says Spontarelli. “What they’re looking for is something that is going to pay well, something that is going to have normal and reliable hours.”
In an analysis of nearly 7,000 workers in 2021, Pew Research found that 53% of people who quit changed their field or occupation. Machinist positions offer more security and upward growth than food or retail services.
Spontarelli’s message that this program can completely change the careers and lives of its participants is clear. Jamie Gillespie, director of economic development for the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, says that the program changes the economic outlook of the community too.
“We not only want to support our existing businesses, but programs like this help us also attract new companies. Metalworking is a huge sector in the Lynchburg area with our two nuclear headquarters that we have here. Machine shops are all around to support them and a lot of other companies as well,” says Gillespie.
“Companies want to make sure they’re diversifying their workforce by putting women in positions that would have traditionally been held by men. They want to do that, they want to diversify, and they have been extremely complimentary of the program and how it’s worked out well for them.”
“Companies want to make sure they’re diversifying their workforce by putting women in positions that would have traditionally been held by men.”
— Jamie Gillespie, Director of Economic Development, Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance
Throughout the program, the participants train in multiple machining skills, so they have career options after they finish. They also talk to women who are already employed in the industry in the region. One of the Women in Machining partners is BWX Technologies (BWXT), a supplier of nuclear components. Their CNC machinist positions average around $30 per hour, a far cry from the $13 per hour average for a retail sales associate in Virginia.
BWXT hosts meetings for seasoned female machinists to meet program participants. The company reached out to Vector Space itself after hearing about the program and wanting to be involved. Now a BWXT member is even on the Vector Space board.
“BWXT has really invested in the program and is hoping for our students in a couple of years,” says Spontarelli. “They’re not going to hire them right now, but they’re hoping that they will continue at the community college and end up at BWXT after that.”
“When [the participants] come out of Vector Space, they’re still going in at a very entry-level position” says Spontarelli. “It’s up to them from there. They can go to a community college and complete their two-year degree, and then they’re looking at a pay raise.” Under the G3 Tuition Assistance program in Virginia, anyone making less than $50,000 per year can attend community college for free.
Women in Machining does have partners that hire direct from the program. Wegmann USA, a defense contract manufacturer, is one. “They hired one of our students last year as a part-time intern and before she even finished the six-month internship, they had hired her on full-time and they love her,” says Spontarelli. “They’re interviewing one of this year’s candidates now and I am hopeful that they have the same experience.”