The coalition has a nonprofit arm that provides partial funding for scholarships and materials for the course. Additional funding for scholarships, which 16 of the 18 students receive, came from a $75,000 grant awarded to LifeTrack from the Greater Twin Cities United Way's WINGs Giving Community.
Beyond training a skilled workforce, Guarino says the larger vision for the coalition is to create a cut and sew industry in the Twin Cities that compares to those in New York and Los Angeles. But to do so, it needs to convince people that these aren't dead-end jobs -- that they have opportunities for advancement, especially as current workers retire.
A chance to start fresh
The program has its share of creative types in their 20s and 30s looking for alternatives to corporate life. Rhea O'Connor, 34, already has a full-time job in Web design. She decided to enroll in the program's night classes so she'd have a skill that would allow her to potentially change careers.
"I want to actually be able to sew in way that I can produce something from the production standpoint instead of just creating a one-off," she said.
Other students are approaching middle age and looking for a chance to start fresh. Marcus Cook, 47, has held his share of jobs in telecommunications and the service industry; in darker days, he served time in prison for robbery.
But, that's all behind him, he says. Now, he's engaged and has monthly bills, child support and a daughter looking to go to college. He sees the course as a ticket to getting his life back on track in an industry that appears to be growing. Plus, after more than a decade working on his feet in kitchens, it satisfies his desire to be creative in a job that won't require him to stand all day.
"I'm still 20 years from retirement so I took this as an opportunity to learn a trade that will give me another notch in my belt and keep me employed," he said. "I don't see this industry becoming totally automated and robotic; there will always be a human application to it."
Scott Loeser also enjoys making things with his hands, which is why he got into leather-making in the first place. And, if growing consumer interest in the "made in USA" trend translates to a real revival of American manufacturing jobs, he wants to be at the forefront.
Running his own successful leather goods business is the ultimate goal -- he already has a name for it, Marked. But, in the short term, he simply wants to learn a marketable trade that interests him.
"The desire for made in USA is out there, the problem is there's no one to make it, which is a need this program is filling," he said. "I want to be part of a movement that makes factory work cool and sexy again."