Cardinal Answers Manufacturing Skills Crisis

by AJ Sweatt, AJ Sweatt Logic & Communications

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 the nation’s 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 and 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. Cegielski came up with the idea for a fully functional, sustainable machining business and presented two-, three- and five-year plans to the school board. The most serious obstacle 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, Cegielski 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.

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

  • It solves the “cost” problem. Anyone with a smidgen of manufacturing experience knows the costs of starting and maintaining a contract manufacturing business. By stocking its technology through donations from local manufacturers, 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.
  • It solves 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.
  • 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 school board or tax roles.
  • It works to support – not compete with – local manufacturers. Since Cegielski’s 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, he 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.
  • It creates and maintains a mutually beneficial collective. Here’s the best part … All of those stakeholders – the superintendent, school board, 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 their 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 are pleased 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 Cegielski and Cardinal Manufacturing have seen, but about the critical contributions made by the entire Strum, WI, community. Cegielski’s vision and leadership were vital for Cardinal to succeed – but it’s the support of everyone that allowed Cegielski and his students to soar.

AJ Sweat is business speaker and writer based in Atlanta, GA. He has helped clients understand and maximize their presence in industrial marketing, internal communications, emerging media, training, the Web and social media for over 20 years. He can be reached at

Reprinted with permission.