Cardinal Manufacturing: A Student-Run Success

by Douglas Sands, The American Mold Builder

In a rural high school with fewer than 200 students, one program has revolutionized the entire meaning of technical education at the high school level as we know it. Eleva-Strum Central High School has been home to its hallmark program, Cardinal Manufacturing, for seven years. What once began as a simple, fund-building project has made the high school a pinnacle of technical education across America.

What is Cardinal Manufacturing? When it comes down to it, the concept is incredibly simple. Instead of building shop projects just to pass a class, Eleva-Strum students are machining high-caliber parts for actual business partners. Students work as employees and receive a portion of the business’s gross income as pay. The rest goes toward purchasing new equipment and improving the shop at a pace unmatchable by most high schools.

Technical education teacher Craig Cegielski, the man who sparked the radical student-run business plan, has nurtured the shop from a run-down operation into an organized business production floor. When Cegielski began in 2005, the shop was nothing more than an open space with machinery wedged between piles of junk. The lighting was poor, the heating system was ancient and the air conditioning system was nonexistent. Trash lay everywhere. What little machinery that was in place was terribly outdated and had been poorly maintained for years.

“The first couple of years were all about throwing away, cleaning, sweeping and painting,” Cegielski explained. With the help of a handful of dedicated shop students, Cegielski stripped the shop of its useless material. He didn’t stop for long before beginning the slow rebuilding process. The first task was refitting the shop for educational uses. Cegielski turned these projects loose with his students. Under his guidance, they built worktables, cabinets and welding booths to bring the shop up to a basic functioning level.

“The next step was to get in with local manufacturers,” Cegielski said. Establishing partnerships with local companies was one of the main focuses of Cegielski’s early work. He explained that the process was all about building relationships: “Companies don’t like it when you walk in, introduce yourself and ask for $10,000.” Instead of approaching businesses as a school seeking donations, Cegielski approached them as a business seeking new partnerships. “How this works is on relationships, networking, communication and partnerships,” Cegielski stated. By doing work for these companies, the shop gained invaluable support. “They started to donate, and we started to grow.”

Some ask why Cegielski went through all the hassle to build the business program in a school setting. In reply, he stated, “The school here is very supportive, but it just cannot afford to pay for all the equipment, improvements, travel and everything else we want to do to run a high-level program. The community ends up footing the bill.” Cegielski continued, “We had to basically fundraise. Yes, we could sell candy bars, but the problem is the students then spend a lot of time fundraising where they’re not learning.” That’s where Cardinal Manufacturing offered the golden ticket. “This way, we’re fundraising while we’re learning. We’re earning our money, so it’s not a draw on the community,” Cegielski concluded.

When asked how he came up with the idea for a student-led business, Cegielski said simply, “I saw that the students have the capability to do this work. It’s more fun to do it for somebody else for pay. It was a way to buy new equipment; no matter how good the school is, it just doesn’t have that much money.”

Cardinal Manufacturing officially began in 2007, two years after Cegielski’s arrival. The first business generation consisted of nine brave students who accepted Cegielski’s challenge. The students started out making crude products that didn’t require precision machinery to build, such as chicken grills and trailers. “We really didn’t have good equipment,” Cegielski said of the first year. “We kind of had to make do.”

But as the years passed, Cegielski and his students formed more connections with local businesses. Each year, Cardinal Manufacturing was bringing in new equipment, both through donations and through its own purchases. The tech ed program was growing at a stunning pace. “That’s just been the evolution,” stated Cegielski. Since 2007, the shop has changed from top to bottom. New lighting, new heating and air conditioning, new tin, new paint and new equipment have all been added to the shop. The business itself has grown as well. Students now work as office staff in addition to machinists. In the fall of 2014, the business also will be employing a student to be the overseeing production manager on the shop floor. Cardinal Manufacturing’s sales base now includes businesses from across the United States.

Overall, Cardinal Manufacturing has been a remarkable success, benefiting every person involved. The students benefit with an advanced education to prepare them for college. The school district benefits with a high-level shop program and the recognition that comes from it. The technical colleges benefit with incoming freshmen possessing advanced machining skills. Lastly, the manufacturers benefit as well, both in the short run with ordered parts and in the long run with future employees.

Besides expanding the shop and its capabilities, Cardinal Manufacturing also has raised the standard of precision for Eleva-Strum students. As Cegielski explained, it provides a clearly relevant education: “If you go out into the metal shop and build a hammer, there’s no real deadline. If it’s off a little bit, you don’t care; it’s just for a project.” This was how the shop operated before 2005. Cardinal Manufacturing’s implementation has changed that dramatically. “Now there are criteria and blueprints to follow, with real deadlines and real quality issues,” stated Cegielski. Cardinal Manufacturing has made its students much more accountable for the quality of work they put out.

One might think that the increased pressure of the business model would scare away some of the youth who might otherwise be interested in the shop program. However, this hasn’t been the case at Eleva-Strum; students here readily embrace the concept of the business. It allows them to take ownership of their work. Cardinal Manufacturing students hold their heads high in the hallways, knowing they are part of something big, something of which to be readily proud. The business also pays better than the other classes that are offered. By incorporating hour-based pay, the business program also encourages students to tackle more projects instead of putting off the deadlines.

One of the largest issues plaguing the manufacturing industry today is how to attract youth into the field. Cardinal Manufacturing practically ensures that its students will find success in their futures. With plenty of manufacturing jobs opening without replacements, the manufacturing job market will be wide open. The added edge that Cardinal Manufacturing gives its students will take its graduates anywhere their careers might go.

Cardinal Manufacturing’s runaway success has attracted the eye of many other schools looking to expand their technical education field. Over the last year and a half, between 60 and 70 schools have toured the Eleva-Strum shop, hoping to replicate the program in their own facilities. Cegielski doesn’t blame them: “It is a model that’s working, and you can afford to do it,” he stated. But trying to teach the ins and outs of the entire system over the phone just doesn’t work out. “It’s not that we’re not willing to help,” added Cegielski. “It’s just that it’s hard to help them.”

For this reason, Workforce Resources out of Green Bay has offered to document the entire process of building a student-run business. It would set up a model program for other schools, showing how Cardinal Manufacturing took the shop from its beginnings to its current success. The goal is to help other school districts replicate what Cardinal Manufacturing has given to Eleva-Strum.

Cegielski also has talked about hosting a three-day workshop in the summer to talk face-to-face with other tech ed teachers. He envisions representatives flying in from across the country, learning about the secrets of the business model in person. This way, the representatives can ask their own questions and plan out their own programs.

The future is looking very bright for Cardinal Manufacturing. Plans already are underway to convert an old office space across from the classroom into a professional office space for meetings with business representatives. Cegielski also is working on implementing a new engineering program to the curriculum and is looking into adding onto the shop. He foresees constructing a warehouse on the far end of the shop to store materials and finished projects. Not only will this give students a place to keep their work safe, but it also will free up more space in the shop for new machinery.

“We’re trying to mimic a real manufacturing model,” Cegielski said. In everything he does in the classroom, Cegielski pushes for professionalism out of his students. His goal is to turn Cardinal Manufacturing into a well-oiled machine that can keep up with larger demands. The main objective is to always keep expanding.

“It’s not only expanding,” explained Cegielski. “It’s sharing our information so that other schools across the country can do this. If there are thousands of these (businesses) around the country, more and more students will go into manufacturing careers. They become exposed, where they may not have chosen those careers otherwise. It will fill the existing skills gaps.” Cegielski continued, looking on an even broader spectrum. “It’s good for our economy,” he said. “We need, as a country, to make something, whether it’s farming or mining or manufacturing; you can’t have all sales and service industries. Hopefully, the country will be better off for it.”

The students at Eleva-Strum fully believe that they are making a difference in the future of manufacturing. They are fully behind their program as it paves the paths of tomorrow. “We’re closing the gap,” Cegielski said. Slowly but surely, small shops like Eleva-Strum’s are giving their all to reshape the future of manufacturing.

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2014 issue of The American Mold Builder.