Casey Putsch is showing engineering students how to build things IRL.
The skilled trades are hurting right now. Every industry from plumbing to carpentry to car repair is looking for workers, but there's no one to fill them. Students in my generation (X) were pushed into college as most of our parents didn't get a higher education. We dutifully followed, as did the next generation and the next, and now we're left without builders, makers, and doers. Ohio-based Genius Garage and its founder Casey Putsch are aiming to change that, one student at a time.
Genius Garage in Toledo, Ohio, was started in 2013 by Putsch, to teach kids what he never learned in his school. He's self-taught in fabricating, welding, general engineering and a handful of other skills he uses to build projects on his YouTube channel, which also pays for his non-profit student garage. His major was Fine Arts with an Industrial Design focus at Ohio State. Not really the type you'd expect to see using an English Wheel to pound out a panel in an auto shop. He basically started the school to right some wrongs.
"It was my deep-seated lament for the failings of the American educational system. I never had the right path or mentors as a young student and after mentoring college engineering students in fabrication for some time I got an idea," said Putsch. "I figured if I was going to be involved with racing cars on my own anyway and that I have a facility to create, I may as well make the difference for young people that I didn't have, and help launch their careers and get them jobs. The concept and formula for Genius Garage basically created itself in that moment to best achieve the goal and purpose."
According to the website, the Genius Garage is trying to bridge the gap "from academia to industry, giving students with spark an opportunity to grow and prove their worth to potential employers." Putsch and the students have worked on all sorts of machines ranging from cars to boats to planes.
"The projects come from my head. I look for things that only seasoned professionals do. I want the world to know what my students are capable of, so we do serious stuff. The first year was a Hogan Reynard 1997 Champ car, but we have an IMSA Corvette, a Daytona Prototype, a Pac West IndyCar, we built a Sopwith Camel biplane in four months," said Putsch.
"One student built a BD5 micro jet, like from the James Bond movie Octopussy, and I even built the world's only full-scale flying Pterosaur model because I wanted my kids to be inspired by what is possible. I have taught younger students and their families how to build 1/24 scale slot cars, built a six-wheel Tyrrell style go-kart, and even taught automotive design with clay and markers. We don't mess around, I make sure the world knows what is possible and I want my students to learn 'how to think' so they can solve problems and be leaders of industry."
It wasn't easy to start Genius Garage, both for the lack of funds and the initial lack of students. Putsch says he was shocked at how unphilanthropic the car, racing, and high-end vintage world was. It takes a lot of money to build a Pebble Beach winner, which doesn't leave much for charity.
"I have even had powerful people in the racing world try to push us out because we were getting more attention than their sponsors. It took me many years of literal blood, sweat, and tears to get the program off the ground and make sure it existed for the betterment of the students," said Putsch. "I was incredibly fortunate that a number of well-heeled auto and racing enthusiasts trusted me and my vision and donated money and even cars so that we could have a program at all."
As it's a charity, Genius Garage is run by professional volunteer mentors ranging from CEOs to fighter pilots, racing engineers, members of Interpol, sports professionals, and even the Chief of Staff to Winston Churchill. Much of the financial support comes from donors, as well as grants and foundations. Obviously, Putsch has put a ton of his own money into it, as well as tools and cars.
"My YouTube platform including the VINwiki channel has been the saving grace to Genius Garage because the public sees the value and reaches out to support, as do business owners and leaders looking to hire the students. Also, all of the revenue from my T-shirt and clothing sales on YouTube just goes straight to Genius Garage," said Putsch.
And it seems to be working. Students come from all over the US. They're mostly mechanical engineers, but the Garage has also hosted artists, business majors, communication students and more. In addition to automotive and aerospace, Putsch also teaches the social side. And if you look at any of his feeds you can see how dedicated he is. These kids go on to do great things.
"Students of Genius Garage are now employed as engineers at large companies such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Dana, Marathon, Tesla HQ and smaller ones like Xtreme Experience and even restoration shops," said Putsch.
The website is full of testimonials from students including Madolyn Burke, who went to the Genius Garage in 2018. She noted that in addition to learning about vintage racing and the automotive world, she was also able to gain a little experience in the professional business world.
"I grew to learn the importance of stepping out of my comfort zone, learning life skills that will help me in my future career field, and had the pleasure to see that impact on the other students' lives as well. Before joining this program, I was one who would try to fade into the background, someone who thought my thoughts were invalid and was content with staying in my comfort bubble," said Burke.
"Moving through the months of Genius Garage, I was put in situations where I was pushed to do better, situations where I was given the chance to have my input mean something on the team. I was given the opportunity to learn how to talk to important people, talk in public without being embarrassed, and showed that people depend on me and my responsibilities on a team," she said.
Putsch's favorite projects for the students are pro-level race cars like the IMSA Corvette. The team has to build a complete machine that is for public competition. Those are the ones that change lives. He jokes that an 18-year-old kid can fly a fighter jet into hostile territory "but colleges and schools are afraid of scissors."
"You can also graduate a four-year degree in engineering and never turn a screwdriver. I just felt it was time for some good old fashioned American leadership and mentorship where young people from different backgrounds can come together for a common goal and I wanted to make the world a better place than it was for me as a kid."
Putsch puts some of the blame on the American education system but admits that we expect too much from it. He says that he gets that it's safer in the classroom, but that isn't the real world. And "fortune favors the doers."
"We have done a horrible job since the '80s of looking down our noses at anyone who uses their hands to make a living and have championed college over anything relating to a trade. Engineers are college grads, but must learn to use their hands or industry suffers," said Putsch. "Colleges and universities have become predatory towards our young people with too-easy-to-get student loans that you cannot default on and saddle them with degrees that don't provide a return on investment."
But it's not really about the cars, or the shop, or the tools, or the finished products. It's about the teams of people behind all of them.
"Our students are the actual projects," said Putsch. "Each one finds their inner confidence and grows tremendously over the course of their time at Genius Garage. And this paired with the program is what actually launches their careers. Each one of those students mean so very much more to me than any race car or airplane ever will."
Check out GeniusGarageRacing.com to find out more or to donate.