The workday for this St. Francis machine shop begins with the sound of a school bell.
The 18 workers don safety glasses, pore over blueprints and sidle up to machines to get started making parts for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Don’t be fooled by their backpacks and school books. They may be students at St. Francis High School, but they mean business — and lately it’s the business of keeping the state’s snowplows on the road.
For years, MnDOT has relied on inmates to make parts for equipment like snowplows through MINNCOR Industries, the state’s prison vocational program.
But the state shut down its Stillwater metal fabrication program last summer after corrections officer Joseph Gomm was killed by a prisoner with a hammer. The move left MnDOT scrambling to find new vendors.
Erik Trost, a technology education teacher at the northern Anoka County school, heard about the agency’s dilemma and asked officials to give his students a shot at fabricating some of the parts.
The new student-run business, dubbed Saints Manufacturing (after the school’s teams), has worked on hundreds of parts for MnDOT since the fall, giving the agency quotes for their work like any other vendor. The teens are filling orders for bolts and pins, poles and pulleys — parts bound for everything from snowplows to traffic signals.
So far, MnDOT’s purchase orders with the school have totaled nearly $9,000. The state agency is their biggest customer yet.
“This is very unique,” said Brian McDonald, who oversees buying parts for MnDOT. “It’s a benefit to MnDOT and to the taxpayers, but it’s also a benefit to the school.”
Sure, students enrolled in the Saints Manufacturing class learn about machining and welding. But they’re also sussing out how to call suppliers for price estimates, give sales quotes, track invoices and market their for-profit business, Trost said.
“We are trying to make it as real-life, real-world as we can,” he said.
“When we are done making or manufacturing a part, I want people to think it was done in industry, not coming out of a high school lab.”
Trost launched the yearlong Saints Manufacturing course last year, with the first batch of students focusing mainly on custom fire pits. When he heard about MnDOT’s plight last fall, he reached out to the agency and worked with McDonald to get things rolling.
“The MnDOT piece, that’s a game-changer,” Trost said.
Trost modeled Saints Manufacturing after a program at a small high school in Wisconsin that has attracted national buzz.
Craig Cegielski started Cardinal Manufacturing at Eleva-Strum High School in Strum, Wis., in 2007. An in-school business, he said, can help remedy the problems confronting many high school shop classes, which often grapple with tight budgets, outdated equipment and limited opportunities for real-world experience.
Some high school programs are benefiting from a resurging interest in career and technical education, which has weathered dipping participation in recent decades, according to a 2017 report by the Brookings Institution.
At Cardinal Manufacturing, students learn crucial job skills from dealing with customers to taking orders and making parts.
Most of all, Cegielski said, they become adept at solving problems.
The class is open to juniors and seniors, who must apply and interview to get in. It attracts about 20 students a year, making it a heavyweight program in a school that averages 40 or so seniors in a graduating class.
Many go on to technical colleges and enter the working world as coveted employee prospects for manufacturers battling worker shortages.
Cegielski and his students field invitations to speak all over the country about Cardinal Manufacturing, which is being replicated in other schools, he said.
“This is a model that works,” he said. “It’s self-funding.”
In its first year, the student-run manufacturing business pulled in about $11,000. Total revenue in recent years has grown to $150,000, with much of it going toward materials, equipment and facility upgrades, Cegielski said. Students get a cut through profit-sharing, depending on the hours they’ve worked.
That’s the goal for Trost’s students at St. Francis High. Right now, the money is going back into the program. But Trost said he has hit some roadblocks in getting the right approvals for student profit-sharing, prompting him to reach out to lawmakers for help.
“Nobody can tell me how we can legally pay the students,” Trost said. “I need help to make this happen.”
On Friday afternoon, students didn’t wait for the bell to blare to get to work in the machine shop, which will soon double in size thanks to a recent bond referendum. More room means a chance to expand Saints Manufacturing.
Near the front door, students thumbed through invoices and punched numbers into phone calculators, leaning over a table covered in blueprints amid the din and whir of nearby equipment.
Some teens want to go into trades like machining after graduating. That’s senior Catie Lonergan’s plan, with her sights set on Anoka Technical College come fall.
“It’s cool to be a part of something that has use,” she said, pointing to the traffic signal parts she had been working on.
Students say it’s the class they most look forward to each afternoon.
“Each day is different,” said junior Josiah Lewerenz. “You need to find different solutions.” Fresh dilemmas await as orders grow more complex, he said.
Next up for Saints Manufacturing? Business cards and a website.