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What skills gap? How Bushwick’s Total Metal Resource built a team of 2,000 local welders

January 25, 2017
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Early last Spring, Bushwick-based Total Metal Resource won a contract with Riverside Developers to make 2,000 simple steel pieces for The William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg. With his four-person team already committed to other projects, Founder Scott Behr didn’t want to scour Craigslist and expand his staff with cold hires. Then he remembered that through TMR’s Metal Shop Fantasy Camp, he’d taught 900 New Yorkers basic welding and metal work. Behr reached out to the community and quickly recruited 20 temporary hires to work in four-hour shifts. Less than three weeks later, TMR delivered the job.

“Everyone was so happy to come practice their skills and apply it to something we were doing,” Behr says. TMR was equally thrilled to realize they’d developed a pool of accessible, local talent. With the ebb and flow of American manufacturing, companies are finding gaps in skilled workers. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that, nationally, there are more than 250,000 open manufacturing positions. Over the past two years, TMR has solved that problem through in-shop classes like Intro to Welding, How to Make a Cube, Steel Bowl Making, TIG Welding and more.

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By day, the nine-year-old Total Metal Resource fabricates retail fixtures for a growing roster of companies. General contractors and architects like MG & Company, A L M Project and Rockwell Group come to Behr to create custom facades, stairways, shelving units, bars and decor for clients including Shinola (shown above), Chobani, Wagamama and Tom Colicchio’s Crafted Hospitality. TMR is part of a rise in New York-based manufacturing agencies – firms that specialize in accommodating imaginative requests. A job like Wagamama’s Flatiron flagship brings in about $200,000 and feeds TMR’s appetite for challenging work. With custom projects, “you’re always reinventing the wheel because there are so many different, new strategies on design, engineering, design and installation,” says Behr.

By night, TMR shares their knowledge with students of all ages through Metal Shop Fantasy Camp. They’ve taught more than 2,000 New Yorkers and innovation tourists how to cut and shape metal with MIG and TIG welders, a CNC plasma cutter, bandsaws and hand tools. Initially, Behr’s girlfriend was suspect that anyone wanted to “make a cube.” But two years later, Fantasy Camp’s $110,000 revenue is almost double the 2014 take and enough for TMR to consider spinning off camp into a separate business with its own space.

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Behr says students range from novices to refined makers who follow up classes by booking studio time. A renewed national interest in building handmade products and the popularity of shows like Forged in Fire led Behr to introduce classes like blacksmithing and knife-making that lead to finished products. Michael Opalenski, for instance, took one cube class and then got to building a meat smoker for his backyard (shown above). Opalenski sourced plate steel from Rapid Steel in Long Island City, booked studio space and received additional plasma cutting tutorials from TMR.

TMR recruits instructors from local welding shops like 4th State, Serret Metalworks and Argosy Design and grooms former students like Opalenski to become teachers. And, if they ever need additional skilled hands for, say, an upcoming job for the NYC Parks Department’s Harris baseball field in the Bronx, TMR now has plenty. To take classes or book studio space, check out Total Metal Resource’s Metal Shop Fantasy Camp as well as this trio of bespoke Brooklyn makerspaces.