To call the building that once housed Peyton’s junior high and high schools unassuming might be an overstatement.
The drab, functional structure sits in the heart of the eastern plains community’s “downtown,” and had been underutilized for quite some time. But now that building could provide an unlikely spark — one that could narrow the country’s skills gap and ignite a resurgence in skilled manufacturing nationwide.
“We’ve shown we can take a mothball of a building, make it state-of-the-art and create the worker of tomorrow,” said Tim Kistler, superintendent of Peyton School District 23 JT.
“We’re going to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.”
Building a future
About 25 miles northeast of downtown Colorado Springs, Peyton seems an improbable place for a revolution. The small community built a high school in 2005 and used what is now its Career Technical Education facility as a middle school. Amid declining enrollment (only 600 students in the entire district, K-12), the two schools were combined and the building that now houses the CTE facility sat empty. Then Kistler heard about Dean Mattson.
Mattson was the founder of Oregon’s Mattson’s Interiors, a cabinet-making company that operated from 1998-2009. During that time, he discovered it was difficult to find qualified workers.
Mattson lost his first wife to cancer in 2007 and watched more than a million dollars in contracts vaporize during the last financial crisis.
“It shook my world,” he said, adding that he then re-examined his priorities. Mattson eventually married an educator, which led to his being hired by Oregon’s North Salem High School to oversee its woodworking program. More than 70 percent of the students in the school received free or reduced-cost lunches, and more than 20 percent were homeless. Mattson said those students were placed in shop class to be forgotten.
“Shop is where they put the kids who didn’t have a future,” Mattson said.
Mattson became the high school’s Career Technical Education instructor and incorporated partnerships he’d developed as a manufacturer.
“I told them, send me any of your trash, your broken machines or broken tools and maybe I can make them work,” Mattson said. “We had nothing in the whole program except this old, extraordinarily dangerous equipment.”
Stiles Machinery, a Michigan-based company that produces Computer Numerically Controlled devices, was one of the first to get on board, donating new manufacturing equipment to the Oregon program, which has since turned out 3,000 skilled workers in six years. But Mattson said he had done all he could with the program in Oregon.
“Shop is where they put the kids who didn’t have a future.” – Dean Mattson
Luckily, Kistler hoped to develop a similar program in Peyton — and he was starting from square one.
Kistler contacted Mattson to see if he would act as a consultant on the Peyton program. Then Peyton’s school board offered Mattson a three-year contract to work on the project full-time. Mattson accepted.
A need to grow
Amid classrooms cluttered with old furniture and halls of lockers left unused, Kistler turns a key within its lock and opens the door to a sunlit observation room.
“This is where I want to put the drool buckets,” he said of the area sitting below expansive windows that offer views of the building’s woodshop floor — the envy of any manufacturer.
Several students are leaving before the next two-hour block begins. Inside the shop sits a half-million dollars worth of donated, state-of-the-art equipment. The CTE facility, thanks to Mattson’s connections, has acquired nearly 40 industry partners that have donated everything from hand tools to hundreds of thousands of dollars in manufacturing equipment to an endless supply of lumber.
Companies like Stiles, Kreg Tools and Fasteners, Bessey Clamps, Blum Hardware — the list goes on. Each of the sponsors’ banners adorn the walls of the workshop. Forty students, about a fifth of the district’s eligible high school students, are going through the program’s inaugural year.
But 40 kids at a time isn’t enough to address the current workforce skills gap, Kistler said. That’s why the district, along with Mattson, is seeking a 20,000-square-foot facility in Colorado Springs that would act as a national training center. That facility could be used by transitioning military personnel, regional community colleges and high school students from all districts who have undergone a few semesters of Peyton’s program.
More than $2 million in equipment has been committed by Stiles Machinery alone. But Kistler said they need the business community’s support to land the right facility. The impact to local and national manufacturers would be immediate, he said.
“There are 100,000 lean [streamlined] manufacturing jobs nationwide that are currently unfilled,” Kistler said. And the education, he said, goes beyond merely teaching how to construct something of value.
“They also learn soft skills, like showing up to work on time and pulling their pants up,” he said, adding when sponsors get involved, the district expects interaction between those companies and the students. “When you donate, we’ll give you a banner in our shop and we’ll market you. But part of the requirement is to come in and build relationships with these kids. That way they learn how to talk to adults and could someday be part of your business.”
‘Cream of the crop’
Mark Schultz owns Peyton’s Schultz Millwork Inc. His company of four employees creates commercial cabinetry — primarily for medical offices and hotels — most of which is shipped out of state.
Schultz said he’s had up to eight employees in the past, but the biggest hurdle to consistent growth has been an unskilled labor pool.
“Part of our growth issue has been labor,” he said while substitute-teaching a shop class at the Peyton facility. “I hire a lot of young people, but it’s hard to grow when you have to teach each new person how to use a tape measure. … They just haven’t had any exposure to anything we do. This [program] has been running two months now and there are already kids I see in here — I’m like, ‘OK, as soon as you’re ready to graduate, let me know.’”
Schultz said he hires younger workers because, in order to remain competitive, he can’t afford the labor costs of hiring more experienced journeymen.
“But at the same time, if we find good people, we keep them,” he said.
Schultz said a young, trained workforce would make a significant impact on his business.
“We could grow exponentially,” he said. “The work is out there. If you come to work for me with this [training], I can put you to work right away and pay you way more than minimum wage.”
Schultz said the paradigm of having to go to college to land a well-paying career has shifted.
“This definitely can be a replacement for college,” he said. “This is easily a career. If you’re good at what you do, you can make a good living at it. And if a kid is set on wanting to go to college, especially engineering or architecture, this gives them a hands-on approach.”
Kistler agreed, saying, “We became so wrapped up in everybody having to go to college, but in the back of our minds, we knew some of these skills would drop off. But it didn’t hit us until manufacturers came to educators, asking where all the kids were.”
Kistler’s vision for Peyton’s CTE facility goes far beyond woodworking. The building also houses one of the region’s only auto shops and construction courses. An empty room will soon have a computer lab and donated Computer-Aided Design software. There is space for a life-skills class that will teach sewing, cooking and money management. And the district hopes to create an exchange program with other districts so regional students can find a trade skill somewhere that appeals to them.
But Mattson said community buy-in is crucial if the program is to reach its potential.
“The employers are the benefactors here and they should fund a training center,” Mattson said. “They need to make an investment and have a stake in this because we’re training all their future employees. …
“For them, this is like a baseball farm team and we’re getting these kids ready for the major leagues. Employers can come in and groom them for future employment and build relationships — and then pluck the cream of the crop.”
Editor’s note: This is the first is a series of articles reporting on local educators and their efforts to narrow the workforce skills gap. Next week will examine work being done in Colorado Springs School District 11.
Peyton School District is hosting an open house at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at its Career Technical Education Facility, 18220 Main St. Regional manufacturers are encouraged to attend and RSVPs can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.