5 Reasons Why This May Be The Answer To Our Manufacturing Skills Crisis

In the heart of the US’ manufacturing heartland, a very special ‘machine shop’ with an equally special ‘shop manager’ just may well have found the solution to our manufacturing skills crisis. And it’s likely unlike any manufacturing business you’ve ever seen.

What makes this ‘shop’ special is that it’s housed in Eleva-Strum Central High School in Wisconsin, and all aspects of the business – Cardinal Manufacturing – are run by Eleva-Strum students.

It’s a remarkable model that – if accepted and considered by other US school districts & high schools – could have immeasurable impact on improving our long-term shortage of manufacturing talent in the US. Why? Because Cardinal has implemented a program that bridges the gap between technical proficiency and business acumen – something that only apprenticeships have accomplished in the past.

First, a little background:

Cardinal was started in 2005 by Craig Cegielski and Eleva-Strum’s school board and administration. Craig came up with the idea for a fully functional, sustainable machining business and presented 2-, 3-, and 5-year plans to the school board. The most serious obstacles to the program was funding – capital equipment and other necessary technology isn’t cheap, and the school board was reluctant to invest (more on that below). Through relationships with local manufacturing businesses, Craig was able to secure donations of the equipment he needed to launch Cardinal Manufacturing. What’s come from those initial contributions – Milltronics and Mazak CNC machining centers, among other equipment – is a program that creates wealth, young manufacturers with not just technical chops but real-world business acumen, and experienced candidates to hit the ground running in local manufacturing businesses in the area.

(For a fantastic article on Cardinal, its history and inner-workings, check out “Does This School Have The Formula For Manufacturing Education?” by Pete Zelinski over at MMSOnline.com.)

Here are 5 reasons why I think Cardinal has it right, and why others need to dig into and adopt similar models now.:

  1. It Solved The ‘Cost’ Problem – Anyone with a smidgen of manufacturing experience knows the costs of starting and maintaining a contract manufacturing business. By stocking its technolgy through donations from local manufactuers, initial costs were dramatically reduced. Many of the projects during the developing years of the program were to build equipment for the shop itself, rather than for customers.
  2. It Solved The ‘Ethics’ Problem – It doesn’t take long to imagine the challenges with having middle and high school students working for a for-profit business on school grounds. But students have always earned dough for their schools through bake sales, car washes, selling products, and other projects. The Cardinal program tracks the hours that each student works in the shop, and has developed a profit-sharing program that compensates the students.
  3. It Makes A Profit – All other profits from the program are plowed back into the business for maintenance, tooling, other consumables, and business expenses. The program is sustainable with little financial support from the shool board or tax roles.
  4. It Works To Support – Not Compete With – Local Manufacturers – Since Craigs’ students can only put in a few hours work per day, the amount and type of work they do at Cardinal isn’t usually seen as competitive with local machining businesses. On the contrary, Craig says that many of the local shops subcontract to Cardinal the less demanding jobs that they must perform for their most valuable customers. Further, by donating equipment to Cardinal like that which the local businesses use they are assured of a talent pool from which to choose entry-level employees with experience in the employer’s processes and technologies. It’s a win-win, on multiple fronts and for all stake-holders.
  5. It Creates And Maintains A Mutually Beneficial Collective – Here’s the best part. All of those stakeholders – the superintendent, school board, the principal, teachers, local businesses, government – all work together to maintain equilibrium within the collective to ensure value to all. Ultimately, the collective creates well-rounded manufacturers that aren’t just technically adept at machining, welding, or engineering – these students order the materials, order and change the tooling, market the business, work the books, and perform all the tasks any profitable manufacturer would. And that creates manufacturing BUSINESS PEOPLE that know the true impact of own decisions, good and bad. It’s a trial-by-fire that no other type of program can approach for bridging the gap between the technical and the profitable – what matters holistically to the business, and what does not. Students with a manufacturing gift are drawn to and are nurtured by a program that allows them to pursue what they love – many continue their manufacturing education past the high school level. Local business have an expanded, familiar talent pool. The school board and politicians are supporting their communities in tangible ways, for little financial investment. And parents a please to see the passion of their children grown and supported.

It does, in fact, take a village. The important message here isn’t just about the incredible success that Craig and Cardinal Manufacturing have seen, but about the critical contributions made by the entire Strum, Wisconsin, community. Craig’s vision and leadership were vital for Cardinal to succeed – but it’s the support of everyone that allowed Craig and his students to soar.

This is a story that deserves to be told, written, published, and shared as often as anyone that cares about our manufacturing skills shortage can muster.  To help you with that, here’s a video that the good folks at MMSOnline made about the Cardinal story.

Use it to spread the word:

AJ Sweatt
  1. Good job, A.J. This story grabbed me. I hope the story and video, with your support, provide a conduit to share this compelling story. As you have beautifully condensed, his case single-handedly solves a lot of today’s issues.

    • Thanks for the visit and note, Todd. Meeting Craig & hearing about Cardinal was one of the high points for me at the best IMTS I’ve been to. And your and Pete’s fine work on the video & article are just top-notch. Yeah, we need to keep spreading this story as far and wide as we can. Like you, I think it’s a blueprint for solving many of the skills issues we’re going to be dealing with for a while.

  2. AJ,

    Sweet article! Kudos to Todd and Pete for putting it together and MMS for printing it!

    As I approach my golden years, I have been looking at the state of our industries, I have been severely dismayed at what has happened to us. Our so called skills shortage is really a failure to identify and nurture these young people that love to work with their hands and mind.

    I fully believe that at any point in time, at least 50% of the kids in our school systems are hands on learners. The “academics only” programs do a serious disservice to these potential future geniuses. Many of our greatest thinkers and inventors were admirably equipped with a hands on education that fed their creativity and nurtured their natural abilities.

    As I talk to educators, I constantly refer to what these kids could do if put in an environment that nurtured their natural giftings. I also point out that education would be more balanced if these kids were exposed to a more hands on learning environment.

    Anyway, Keep up the good work AJ. I just recently discovered you and have been reading a lot of your posts. Your writing has a depth and clarity that we need more of.


    • Jim, Pete rocks. And so does Todd. It’s just that simple. You get people together with shared passion and interests, and look what happens. I defer to what they do, and what they did with Cardinal.

      But as to the topic … my best friend in this world is the opposite of me. He is the most gifted person I’ve ever met in the ways of the natural world. That is, he understands natural law and how it can be used to create value from it. Like a part from a material, or a food from unlikely ingredients. Anyway, he and I have talked at length about this – how class structures and curricula are organized these days in ways that discourage young people with those natural gifts. What I think Cardinal does – whether it was intended or not – is to acknowledge those gifts early, and create an environment for them to excel and also TO LEARN about other elements (like economics, or business) as they apply to those gifts. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s awfully important now that we’ve distanced ourselves from those things in this culture.

      But I do think there’s also room for us to deliver a message that considers this: http://ajsweatt.com/education-isnt-the-solution-to-fix-our-manufacturing-skills-shortage/

      It’s also about us reforming our economic and political direction via a comprehensive manufacturing and industrial policy. But I’m actually becoming less and less confident that we will. You’d think that by now …

      Jim, you are a light. You’re instincts are right – we need to do SOMETHING that plays utility infielder to the kids life hits us. Otherwise, we’ll see another generation of manufacturers slip through the cracks.

      Thanks for the visit, the time, and the note, brother.

  3. I agree with you about the elephant in the room and also about Hamilton’s ROM! As a matter in fact, reading your blog post has crystallized some of my thinking. I also lived through the coming home to a “family meeting” such as you described. And, I am one of the survivors of that era.

    The issue as I see it, is that we need to convince the American people that there is a better education for their progeny is they are only willing to grab a hold of it and demand change. Our education system looks like it was intentionally designed to make the majority of the kids fail and to mark them as failures for the rest of their lives.

    These so called failed kids are perfect for our industries. They are smart and highly motivated if put in the right environment. Cardinal Manufacturing is a perfect example of a thriving environment!

    I want to continue this dialogue with you. I suggest that you contact Vicki Bell and Pete Zelinski to see what they say about my contribution to the industry. Perhaps we have some mutual interest that may be beneficial in our respective quest.

    By the way, I asked both of them to introduce me to you via LinkedIn.


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