by Jeff Sykes


You’ll often see Joel Leonard on the receiving end of funny looks as he carries his kanjo “” that’s a banjo-like instrument made from a can “” around downtown. But that’s OK. He probably wants you to see the big yellow sticker for The Forge, the new makerspace downtown on Lewis Street where he serves as the community builder.

Leonard has been known as ‘The Maintenance Evangelist’ since about 1998, when a University of Tennessee professor heard him give a talk about the importance of technical training in the modern job market. Since then, Leonard has helped put on a handful of job fairs and can rightly claim to have helped a few thousand people find work.

“What we glorify is what we get,” Leonard said. “People think that maintenance guys are janitors and that manufacturing is Norma Ray type jobs. As a result, no one wants to pursue those roles.”

Things change quickly when young people move into their 20s, accepting maturity, marriage and mortgages, with many working low-paying service sector jobs while their friend who became a welder is making $50,000 with zero college debt.

Leonard works with the Guilford County Workforce Development Board to promote job training in the aviation and machining fields. “There are some huge opportunities in the pipeline for those jobs right now,” Leonard said.

When he’s not preaching the benefits of technical training or the glory of the maintenance industry, these days he’s talking up The Forge.

“It’s like a YMCA, but instead of lifting weights you are making stuff. It’s a community workshop,” Leonard said. “You see a cross-sharing going on that you just don’t see in other outlets. It really is a lot of fun to see that type of inspiration going on.”

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