When college students meet for the first time, they often ask, “What’s your major?”
A group of students at Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC) can now reply, “Bikes.”
The technical and community college in Red Wing has enrolled its inaugural class in a two-year Associate of Applied Science Degree in Bicycle Design & Fabrication. It’s believed to be the first program of its kind in the country.
“This is focused on exactly what I want to do,” said Scott Johannen, 20, a Boston area native who moved to Minnesota with two years of liberal arts education under his belt. “I would like to design custom bike frames, maybe have my own company or be a lead welder or designer.”
Cycling has exploded in popularity as a leisure activity, a competitive sport and a means of transportation. Now the Red Wing program is helping bike buffs turn their lifestyle into a career.
The program is attracting a surprisingly wide range of students, from teenagers just out of high school to retirees looking for new skills for encore careers.
“These guys eat, sleep and breathe bicycles,” said Chase Spaulding, the faculty lead for the program. “Now they’re learning how to drive that passion into learning all the components of the machine. They have the why; I’m giving them the how.”
Slim, with a close-cropped beard and clad in a hoodie and dark jeans, Spaulding, 29, looks like a guy you’d see pumping along in the bike lane.
With an advanced degree in industrial design and a background designing and building custom motorcycles, Spaulding was recruited from his native North Carolina. Now he bikes the bluffs around Red Wing rather than riding the Blue Ridge Parkway.
He’s preparing students for an industry that awaits them.
“Shortly after the school announced we would build this program, a company that makes bike components called and said, ‘We want your graduates.’ They were asking for them before they exist,” Spaulding said.
Students take academic classes on the history and theory of cycle design and physics for bikes, but much of their work is hands-on in the newly constructed bike lab on campus. They work on welding, machining, metal fabrication and 3-D printing, all applied specifically to cycle fabrication.
“They can open their own shops, be entrepreneurs or work in manufacturing,” he said. “We’re giving them the tool kit.”
Some of the students came of age on the seat of their bikes.
Instead of kicking a soccer ball or running cross-country, they cycled. More than 2,000 Minnesota middle and high school athletes now participate in mountain biking programs through the state’s High School Cycling League, which began staging events in 2012.
Patrick Welch started competing in Northfield when he was 13; he’s fast enough to have qualified for national races and a junior tour in Ireland.
“By necessity I had to learn how to fix bikes and keep them in race condition,” said Welch, now 18. “I planned to go to a four-year college and study computer design or engineering so I could go into bike design, but I’m doing it in one fell swoop here.”
Building bicycles will be a third or fourth career for Chris Lucas, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. The 62-year-old Californian, who holds an MBA, moved to Red Wing to earn the credentials to establish a new business, a line of recumbent bikes he’s designing.
“It’s the perfect bike for commuting,” said Lucas. “The first bicycles replaced horses; my bikes will get people out of their cars.”
In the second year of the program, students will fashion their own capstone project. Lucas is already planning to build a prototype to show to investors.
“I’ll have a product they can see and touch and feel — and ride. That’s what will sell it,” he said.
Minnesota is desperate for workers trained for technical careers. The 2019 State of Manufacturing report by Enterprise Minnesota cited an ongoing worker shortage as the industry’s top threat to future growth.
MSC Southeast is meeting the workforce development challenge by retooling its traditional technical curriculum to add out-of-the-box degrees.
For decades, the college has attracted students from all over the world to its one-of-a-kind Guitar Repair and Building course. It also offers diploma programs in band instrument repair and violin repair, with an impressive 100% job placement for graduates.
“We looked at our music programs — they’re not only full but they have a backlog of students who want in. It’s because the program combines technical skills with an emotional connection to the discipline,” said Travis Thul, the college’s dean of trade and technology who conceived the bicycle program. “We asked, ‘How can we replicate that success?’ ”
Less than two years ago, Thul set the wheels in motion for the new major, which he sees as an innovative hook to bring Gen Z and nontraditional students into technical careers.
“In our backyard, between the Twin Cities and Madison [Wis.], biking is a billion-dollar industry when you look at companies that make cycles, components or sell bikes,” said Thul. “These are real, legitimate local brands but up until now, there wasn’t a program building a workforce for the field.”
When the program was launched this fall it was filled to its capacity of 18. Prospective students are already lining up for next year.
Working on a passion with plenty of job prospects is only part of the appeal: The affordability of the program is another selling point. The cost for the two-year program, including tuition, fees and supplies, is $11,675.
“I’m psyched for this career,” said Welch. “It’s like with biking. When you’re out on the road, you push yourself, and then what you do is up to you.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.