Seventeen-year-old Zach McVicker and his family moved to Colorado Springs last summer, and the Widefield High School junior asked his counselor if the school offered any construction-related courses.
“He said there were still some openings in the MiLL program,” McVicker said. “I said, ‘Sign me up.’”
McVicker was referring to the Manufacturing Industry Learning Labs National Training Center, southeast of the Colorado Springs Airport at 4450 Foreign Trade Zone Blvd. The center, a partnership between Peyton School District and Widefield School District 3, specializes in construction and wood manufacturing training and certifications. It is celebrating its grand opening beginning at 6 p.m. Oct. 5.
Partnerships were key
The road to MiLL Academy’s grand opening is one that began more than 1,300 miles away in Salem, Ore. It was there that Dean Mattson, founder of Oregon’s Mattson’s Interiors, a cabinet-making company that operated from 1998-2009, realized how difficult it was to find qualified wood manufacturers.
Mattson was eventually hired by Oregon’s North Salem High School to oversee its woodworking program. More than 70 percent of students in the district of 50,000 received free or reduced-cost lunches and more than 20 percent were homeless. Mattson became the high school’s Career Technical Education instructor and incorporated relationships he’d developed as a manufacturer. Through a partnership with Stiles Machinery, a Michigan-based company that produces Computer Numerically Controlled devices, Mattson obtained donated manufacturing equipment, and the program turned out more than 3,000 skilled workers in six years.
Peyton Superintendent Tim Kistler heard of Mattson’s work and brought the businessman to Colorado in 2015 to lead a woodworking program in his rural district.
It was at a Peyton open house in 2016 that Widefield Superintendent Scott Campbell met Kistler and Mattson, and he wanted to involve D-3 students. A partnership between the school districts led to the creation of MiLL Academy, which operates out of a former potato-chip factory on the city’s southeast side.
At the grand opening, more than 40 industry partners from across the nation are expected to mingle among $3 million in donated equipment. The event is a celebration, Mattson said, of the launch of what could be the city’s greatest skilled trade job generator in quite some time.
Branden Martinez, a middle-school instructor in D-3, teaches a hybrid industrial technical education class that incorporates science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He also is an instructor in the construction track at MiLL Academy, which began its inaugural year of classes last month. Students, Martinez said, can enroll in courses that put them on the path to become everything from landscapers to facility maintenance technicians and electricians.
Prior to becoming a teacher, Martinez worked as a journeyman plumber for a decade. A graduate of D-3, he said construction used to be a piece of Widefield’s curriculum before he earned his diploma.
“We used to build a house, but that program went away,” he said. “The tide shifted [away from trade education], but it’s starting to come back.”
The facility creates opportunities for students not interested in college, or who may want to pursue other career options before committing to higher education.
But according to Mattson, the facility will impact more than just regional high-schoolers.
“This facility is by an airport, it’s by lodging and restaurants,” Mattson said. “People from all over the world will fly in here, do week-long courses and bring their employees up to speed.
“Colorado Springs now has a national training center here. We didn’t place it in Denver. We placed it in the Springs because there are more opportunities here for expansion and development of the program.”
In the first year of Peyton’s program, more than 1,000 people visited the rural school just because of its woods manufacturing program.
“They don’t even have a stoplight,” Mattson said. “The town is a school and a post office.”
He said the facility on Foreign Trade Zone Boulevard (for more information, visit themillco.org) has already hosted visitors interested in using the facility for tradeshows and national and regional sales conferences.
“They want to look through these windows and see their machines working,” Mattson said. “They can sell right off the floor and get us a new machine within a week.”
Industry partner Sherwin Williams is opening its second design center in the entire country at the academy, Mattson said, and has donated $300,000 to help boost the MiLL’s capabilities.
Locally based RTA Architects has provided architectural services in exchange for use of high-tech machines to develop prototypes.
Concepts in Millwork, a local woodworking manufacturer, also will have employees working out of the academy.
Industry partners manufacturing alongside those just beginning their skilled trade education will be one of the facility’s greatest features, he said.
“Peyton and Widefield are not typical in their approach to education,” Mattson said.
“They’re forward-thinking. And with the state of public funding in education right now — you can’t do something like this without industry partnerships.”
Looking back at how the program began in an empty rural schoolhouse on the plains, Kistler said he couldn’t be more impressed with its progress.
“This is bigger and better than I ever thought it would be,” he said. “The scope and the support we’ve seen from manufacturers and businesses — it’s much more than I ever imagined we would have.”
McVicker said his high school in Nebraska had a skilled trades program, but nothing like the one in Colorado Springs.
“The one in Nebraska is not as advanced,” he said. “This is way more than I expected it to be. I like it a lot.”