When Jeremy Loerch was a kid, his mother knew him all too well.
“She knew I couldn’t just sit and read,” he said. “So she’d give me an old toaster oven to take apart and figure out how it worked.”
That may have been the beginning of his life-long love of working with his hands. Loerch, of Bainbridge Island, is so concerned that kids are not learning the trades anymore that he’s opened a school to teach them trades like welding, blacksmithing and fabrication.
“I was among the last kids to have the chance to take shop classes in the public schools in Washington state,” Loerch said. “Those classes went away in the mid 1990s.”
People thought the kids that took those kinds of classes wouldn’t amount to much, Loerch said. “The trades were viewed as unskilled labor, when, actually they are just the opposite.”
Everyone wanted their kids to go to college, he said. So the trades got passed by.
Even Loerch went to college at Washington State University and became an elementary education teacher. He was a Fulbright Scholar and studied in Japan. When he graduated, he taught kindergarten through middle school age students, mostly in private schools.
“But I became frustrated with parents who took no accountability for their children,” he said. “I would see that their child needed some special attention and they would say, ‘Not my kid. There’s nothing wrong with my kid.’”
So he took a break and was a stay-at-home dad for eight years. Because he and his wife wanted to raise their children away from the city, they settled on Bainbridge Island, “where they could run in the woods and grow up like kids,” he added.
While being ‘Dad,’ he always had a shop and did custom welding jobs. He moved his shop from Seattle and had another location on Bainbridge Island before settling in on land just north of Sportsman Club Road and Highway 305. His shop is a combination of containers used for shipping goods, and metal welded together to create a place large enough for big projects, and with space for classrooms.
During this same time, he knew in the back of his head that he wanted to teach kids again.
“I just wasn’t sure how to make it all work,” he said.
So he went to see The Crucible in San Francisco, a place that “inspires creative exploration and expression through welcoming, hands-on arts education and experiences for people of diverse ages and backgrounds.” As an innovative hub built around the industrial arts, The Crucible is a catalyst for individual growth and vibrant community connections, its website states.
“After I saw what they were doing, I knew it was possible,” Loerch said. “I knew I could start a school, especially for the really young kids, because that’s my favorite age.”
So Alchemy Industrial Arts was born. And after three years of operating the nonprofit school, his classes are gaining in interest.
He teaches kids from kindergarten age through high school in a safe and non-competitive environment. Adult classes are available through the Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN), so he focuses on youth. Classes range in subject matter, length and cost. But typically, a six-week class is $240.
“It’s really affordable,” he said. “People tell me I should charge more, but to me, it’s more important to just get kids in the door.”
He also teaches summer camps, where students are immersed in the subject for five days straight. This past summer he taught more than 180 students.
And the classes are not just for boys.
“That’s always been the mindset,” he said of the trades. “That girls don’t belong in shop classes. And because there’s that stigma of the machismo male, we have a female teacher and the girls start out with her and then they blend into the other classes.”
Actually, he said, women make better welders because they pay more attention to detail, have more patience, and “have a higher pain threshold.”
In his classes students also learn and use technology, including 3D printers and CAD software.
“The little kids love the 3D printer because they plan something and make it and then they can actually hold it in their hand,” he said. “They are just like sponges. They really absorb knowledge.”
The older students who stay with the classes generally break out into two groups — those who want to weld for a purpose, and those who want to “create.”
“I have a 17-year-old student who is building a rally off-road truck,” Loerch said. “And I have a 15-year-old who just got her first commissioned art piece and is creating a giant lobster.”
Both, he said, see their future careers in welding.
As for Loerch, he can’t sustain the nonprofit school without “a regular job.” So he has a for-profit company, monkeywrenchfab.com, and recently did all the metal work at the site of the old Winslow Hardware store, which is now a wood-fired pizza restaurant and a real estate office. His next project is a large copper counter and range hood for a private residence.
“I’m excited to work with copper because it’s a great material to weld,” he said. “It’s delicate but permanent.”
With estimates that there will be a million unfilled jobs in the trades in the coming decade, Loerch sees a real need to continue to teach the trades, even if its through private schools such as his.
“Welding jobs are good-paying jobs,” he said. “Some pay $80 to $125 an hour, and starting pay for someone trained in CAD is about $60 an hour. The need is there and we have to fill it. People have been taught that getting your hands dirty is a bad thing — a sign that you aren’t smart — and that’s not the case at all.”