Wood Shop 2.0: The Resurgence of Technical Education Spaces in School Design


By John Erickson, AIA, LEED AP



Most people’s first thought might be a dusty, cluttered space at the end of a long corridor. Down where the noise is loud and the mess is large. Yes, those were the wood and metal shops of old. And my how things have changed.

Current designs of technical education spaces in schools are replacing small, dusty spaces with modern, high-tech wonders. And it’s the opposite of the “if you build it, they will come” model. These spaces are being built due to a resurgence of student and school interest in the skilled trades.

Which begs the question: what first caused that interest to fade away?

The Fall and Rise of Tech Ed

Technical education spaces had always existed in school designs, but in the 80s and 90s they began to disappear relative to their support. The high cost of these spaces — the purchase of specialty equipment, the maintenance of said equipment, the liability insurance needed to protect the teacher, school and district — and the focus at that time of driving kids toward college education began the process of diverting resources away from the trade classes.

However, technical education spaces, just two decades removed from the low point of trade education popularity,  are making a triumphant return, with growing student demand.

What happened? We attribute the resurgence of technical education to two major components: high-tech innovations and a major workforce opportunity for people skilled in trade work.

High-Tech Transforms the Trades

The value gained from hands-on exposure to wood and metal working equipment hasn’t changed. It’s the access to modern, high-tech tools that has. Things like computer-controlled automation and 3-D printing were once what computers were in the 50s — difficult to operate and massively expensive. Now the affordability and accessibility of these and other high-tech innovations have allowed schools to acquire the type of high-tech tools that have revolutionized the trades.

And it’s also brought the ‘cool factor’ back to tech ed. Robotics programs and clubs in schools, for example, have done a great deal to get kids interested in both the technical science of computer programming and the tactile skills required to assemble parts into a device built to do a specific job.

The World Needs Trades People

There is a growing shortage of skilled labor in the working world. As the ‘baby boomer’ generation ages out of the workforce we are seeing the results of the scholastic push from the 80s and 90s in driving students into college. It’s created a severe shortage of skilled tradespeople and causing a massive negative impact on the industries that actually make things.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 11% surge in demand for skilled trade employees, a faster and larger growth than in any other profession. Also, they predict that overall growth in the economy and population will result in more projects that require the expertise of those in the skilled trades.

These two driving factors help explain the surge of interest in the skilled trades, and the student and school demand for modern, high-tech facilities. Which is where we come in.

Meeting The Demand

Forget what you think you know about skilled trade spaces. Modern design means moving far beyond small, dusty spaces secluded from one another to open floor plans where the delineation between, say, wood shop and metal shop is minimal or outright removed. Advancements in HVAC and dust collection means spaces are cleaner and healthier to work in, and the implementation of modern safety innovations means a lower risk for injury.

We are able to design multi-purpose spaces that focus on the project, not the trade. Gone are the days of making a napkin holder or a footstool. Now students are working together, combining multiple trade skills to create robots and solar-powered go karts, and the spaces they work in need to be just as robust, flexible and innovative.

As someone who has spent his career interacting with members of the skilled trades, I know first-hand the value of hands-on, reality-based education. The entire team at DSGW is honored to have a part in providing this same kind of education to the next generation. One way we are helping to do so is with the new Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia Academy School, now named Rock Ridge.