Workforce Development: Real Projects, Real Customers

March 12, 2018 No Comments
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Students Run Saints Manufacturing

by Melissa DeBilzan

toc_columns50pxShortly after the class bell rings, 17-year-old Steven Vanheel grabs his welding helmet and gloves and places a large metal pyramid on an empty workbench. A senior at St. Francis High School, he’s eager to gain as much experience as possible before graduating. Gripping the TIG torch, he guides the arc across open joints, careful to keep the angle of his torch in check. A few minutes later, he inspects his work: a hopper for a fire pit – one of several products machined and fabricated through the class’ student-run business, Saints Manufacturing.

At a time when many schools are cutting back or closing their industrial technology programs, St. Francis High School is overhauling its curriculum, investing in new equipment, and creating a self-sustaining business model with support from several Minnesota manufacturers. The goal of Saints Manufacturing is to go beyond teaching machining, welding, and fabrication.

“Our focus is on employability,” said Erik Trost, Technical Education Instructor. “In addition to learning how to make a part, students are learning what it takes to design, market, and sell a part or product for profit. I try to stay as hands-off as possible, so they can work as a team to brainstorm and
solve problems.”

In the beginning of the year, for example, students used an entire sheet of metal to cut just one panel for the fire pit hopper. When they realized how much time and materials were being wasted, they created a CAD program to cut six panels out of a single sheet.

So far, students have sold about 20 fire pits at around $200 each. They’ve even customized some with company logos or family names machined out of the metal. Soon students will do a cost analysis by weighing the time and materials necessary to complete each job. They’re hoping to increase profit margins.
Not everyone in class is working on fire pits. At the other end of the shop, Senior James Ptacek fills an order from a local company for dozens of 20-inch concrete form spreaders to be sold at $3.50 each. The CAD program he developed will produce 44 spreaders out of a single sheet of metal. Next, he will try cutting two sheets at a time.

Meanwhile, Connor Rekdahl, a junior, is busy making parts for a snowmobile hitch at the request of a community member. “I want to go into metal fabrication some day and chose this class to get real-world experience,” he said. “This program is nothing short of an actual business, just on a smaller scale, so hopefully once I get into the industry, I’ll be a few steps ahead.”

Senior Colton Zetterval agrees. “You can make up equations all day, but there’s only so much you can do to apply them,” he said. “I took this class because I like metalworking and want to go to college for either mechanical engineering or product design.”


St. Francis launched Saints Manufacturing at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. It’s modeled after a similar high school program in Wisconsin called Cardinal Manufacturing that generates tens of thousands of dollars in revenue each year – money that goes back to the high school program as well as the students in the form of profit sharing.

“Eventually, we hope to get to the point where every student gets a paycheck,” Trost said, noting that students’ pay could be docked for tardiness, safety violations, or poor behavior. He also expects the program to become self-sufficient over the next few years and cover most of its overhead and costs.

Currently, there are 13 students participating in Saints Manufacturing, which is a year-long elective. Over the next few years, Trost hopes to grow that number to at least 25 students and expand various departments in the shop, such as welding, machining, fabrication, CAD design, marketing, and management.

“The neat thing is that students are learning about the manufacturing process from start to finish,” Trost said. “They’re held accountable for everything from quoting to delivery. This is where real learning takes place.”

Trost’s father, Jon Trost, a retired technical education teacher and two-star general, floats around the school shop on most days, volunteering his time to help students. He believes Saints Manufacturing has the potential to help build the labor force, especially if replicated in other areas of the state.

“We just can’t focus on funding programs at technical colleges,” Jon Trost said. “In order to raise interest in manufacturing careers and higher education, we have to dangle a carrot in front of high school students.”

The idea for Saints Manufacturing came from someone in the industry.

Like many companies, MMD Medical based in Brooklyn Park, is concerned about an aging workforce and widening skills gaps. When Vice President Darren Bjork heard about the success of Cardinal Manufacturing, he reached out to St. Francis High School and urged the staff to learn more about it.

“I knew they had a strong technical education program with supportive administrators,” he said. “And I know we’re passionate about promoting manufacturing careers. So, we decided to explore the concept of a student-run business.”

In early 2017, Bjork and others from the school drove to Wisconsin to see the program in action. By fall, Saints Manufacturing had been launched with widespread support from the community, the principal, the superintendent, and school board.

“The program is still in its infancy,” Bjork said. “But seeing these kids operate machines, communicate with businesses, and learn soft skills is incredibly exciting.”


Administrative and community support can only go so far, said St. Francis High School Principal Doug Austin. “It’s tough to find the funding for a program like this. We absolutely depend on industry help, especially as we get the program off the ground, and are grateful for their generosity.”

MMD Medical provided funding for a new vertical mill and 20-inch press. Bell Manufacturing in Northeast Minneapolis donated a hydraulic shear and many thousands of dollars of steel sheet and tubing. Ryerson Steel in Minneapolis donated thousands of pounds of steel for welding practice. C&C Machine Tool in Blaine discounted six new manual lathes and three new manual mills with digital read outs. Northland Screw Products in St. Francis donated bar stock and also offered machining expertise to the program.

These and other companies continue to support Saints Manufacturing by donating time, materials, and money.

“There aren’t a lot of programs that teach fabrication,” said Judy Bell, Vice President of Bell Manufacturing.

“We’ve got to do our part to get more people interested and in the mix.”

Brent Connolly, co-founder of C&C Machine Tool, believes getting kids interested starts in high school.

“Ensuring strong programs at the high school level is beneficial for technical colleges and manufacturers alike,” said Connolly, who is also chair of the advisory committee at Hennepin Technical College.

Rob Martinson, President of Northland Screw Products, is optimistic that Saints Manufacturing could be a stepping stone to future employment at his 40-person job shop. “Recruitment is a challenge across the board,” he said. “I’m hoping the program raises some enthusiasm for our industry and maybe steers a few students my way.”

Indeed, Saints Manufacturing is capable of producing far more than parts or profits. The student-run shop has the capacity to produce the next generation of skilled workers in manufacturing and engineering – the product of collaboration between education and industry.  pm_endmarkred-e1320337243152


MELISSA DEBILZAN is a writer for Precision Manufacturing Journal. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2018 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Nancy Huddleston, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing Journal.


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