The MiLL: A Model to Help Bridge the Woodworking Industry’s Skills Gap

The Manufacturing Industry Learning Lab, aka the MiLL, opened with great fanfare last fall in Colorado Springs, CO.

Billed as a national training center for the woodworking industry, the MiLL features more than $3 million worth of equipment operating under power in a 46,600-square-foot building. The facility offers woodworking instruction to students by day and adults at night.

At the core of the MiLL’s diverse training courses are the Woodwork Career Alliance’s skill standards and credential Passport program.

“Our curriculum is laced with the WCA skill standards,” says Dean Mattson, chief architect of the MiLL. “If a WCA standard can be approached or earned or taught, then it is. They are national standards that we use to accredit students and that translates to instant hirability.”

“It was a natural fit to incorporate the Woodwork Career Alliance’s credential Passport in the woodworking programs both at the MiLL and at Peyton High School,” says Tim Kistler, superintendent of Peyton School District for the past 16 years. “The Passport is stronger than a resume for students who want to pursue woodworking jobs because it documents all of the skills they have learned and it’s based on nationally recognized standards.”

“The MiLL is an extremely well-equipped facility that is a tremendous resource both for our educational system and industry,” says Scott Nelson, president of the WCA. “It’s a fantastic showcase to inspire students and adults to pursue woodworking careers.”

An Amazing Accomplishment
What makes the MiLL’s existence ever-more impressive is that Peyton School District, which only has a total enrollment of about 600 K-12 students, did not have a woodworking program before the start of the 2015-16 school year. That all changed in the summer of 2015 when Kistler and the Peyton School Board recruited Mattson to develop the Peyton Woods Manufacturing Program.

“Being in a rural area, we had a desire to establish a career and technical education program as an important component to our curriculum,” Kistler says. “We read about Mr. Mattson winning the Educator of the Year Award from the WMIA (Woodworking Machinery Industry Association) for his high school woodworking program in North Salem. We hired him as a consultant to convert a school that we shut down in 2008 into the Peyton Woods program.”

“I was impressed that the board of this tiny little school district came to me and said, ‘Come join us; we will support you,’” Mattson recalls. “It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. When I started teaching woodworking at North Salem High School in 2009 I was still rather naïve because before that I was a businessman who ran my own custom woodshop and education was new to me,” Mattson says. “I soon began to wonder, ‘Why are young people who want to use their hands discriminated against?’ The industry is so desperate for people; I knew there was an opportunity to give these kids a career pathway.”

Mattson had the Peyton Wood program up and running in about 90 days by seizing on relationships he forged with industry suppliers at North Salem High School plus new ones he gained after winning the WMIA Educator award. His attention soon turned to developing the MiLL.

“Dean is a visionary,” Kistler says. “When he first came out to Peyton we talked about having the Peyton Woods facility double as a national training center. When the superintendent of Widefield School District in Colorado Springs heard about our idea, he said he wanted to be part of this.”

As the concept moved forward, it was determined that Colorado Springs and its proximity to an airport and hotels was better suited for a national training center. A former potato chip factory was purchased for $1.1 million and an additional $1.5 million was spent to convert the facility into the MiLL. Mattson once again rolled up his sleeves to secure equipment for the MiLL. Stiles Machinery quickly stepped forward with a pledge to loan several key pieces of equipment including CNC machines and edgebanders. Dozens of other industry suppliers jumped on board as well to loan or donate machines and supplies. “Things just started flooding in,” Mattson says. “We now have 256 machines and power tools at the MiLL.”

Branching Out
This fall, more than 115 high school students will take woodworking courses at the MiLL, including the first crop of Peyton seniors who have earned their WCA Sawblade certificates at the Peyton Woods Program. In addition to drawing student participation from Widefield and other area school districts, the MiLL will begin offering evening classes to students of Red Rocks Community College’s Fine Woodworking Program. The MiLL is also working with Wounded Warriors to offer training to ex-military personnel.

“We believe that we can have 250 to 300 high school students coming through our program each year,” Kistler says. “I think we can ultimately achieve a similar number in our evening classes. I see the program only getting stronger,” Kistler says. Part of the reason for Kistler’s optimism is that Peyton is introducing kids to woodworking earlier than ever. The success of an “exploratory” woodworking program for eight graders has led the district to open up the program to seventh graders this coming school year.

“Clearly not all of the kids who come through our program are going to become woodworkers,” Kistler says. “But I think hands-on learning strengthens their academics. I also imagine that a lot of these students will work their way through college using these skills.”

Several of the students have already had an opportunity to earn and learn through an internship program supported by Concepts in Millwork, an architectural woodwork business in Colorado Springs.

“Concepts in Millwork has been a great supporter,” Mattson says. “After their junior year, students can intern their and then when they graduate they can work there and come to the MiLL one day a week for continued training.”

The MiLL will host its second MiLL Academy, August 22-24. The first two days of the three-day program provide classroom and hands-on instruction to educators so that they can bring their woodshop course curriculum and techniques up to date. The third day of the academy includes the option for teachers to be trained as WCA accredited skill evaluators. The class will be instructed by Mattson, a WCA accredited chief evaluator.

Nelson was the lead presenter of the WCA training held at The MiLL in May. “We had six high school teachers, including three from outside of Colorado,” Nelson says. “I think that shows that the MiLL has the power to draw people from all over. Tim and Dean have done an excellent job of getting industry buy-in and promotion for the MiLL.”

Only the Beginning
Mattson’s contract with Peyton School District expired at the end of 2017. Untethered from day-to-day teaching responsibilities, he is focused on serving as a consultant to help launch other MiLL-type facilities.

“People have misunderstood what this facility is all about from the beginning,” Mattson says. “This is not the national training center. It is the model of what has to happen throughout the world of career technical education if we are going to make any meaningful progress toward fulfilling the woodworking industry’s critical need for skilled woodworkers.”

Since the MiLL opened its doors, Mattson says he has had serious discussion with six other entities, including one outside the U.S., about starting a MiLL. “Some of my discussions have included owners of woodworking companies who are thinking about selling their businesses to start a MiLL.

“The Colorado Springs project proved what can be done, but it can’t be the model for the future,” Mattson says. “The industry is going to have to pay for this stuff. Little school districts like Peyton can only do so much. The industry is starving for talent and it’s only going to get worse. They have to have a financial stake in programs like this if they want to reap the benefits.”

Learn more about The MiLL.