Manufacturing gets modern
For graduates of Saint Paul College’s CNC Toolmaking program, making precision parts and tools becomes a lifelong career.
After more than a decade installing commercial office furniture, Chris Kachelmyer was ready for a change. “I’ve always enjoyed shows like How It’s Made, but wished it showed more,” he says. “I started getting into YouTube videos on machining and fabricating, and the more I saw the more I wanted to know."
According to employment data and local manufacturers, he’s on the right track.
“We have a strong manufacturing base in Minnesota and the Midwest, and data shows projected growth in the field of CNC Toolmaking is well above the statewide average,” says Rainer Haarbusch, Dean of Career and Technical Education at Saint Paul College.
“We’ve also learned from our industry partnerships that the majority of the existing workforce will retire in five to ten years, so with just three semesters of training our graduates can get a job that can carry on for a lifetime.”
State of the Art Facilities
To the uninitiated, a career in manufacturing might sound dirty and loud – however modern machine shops are incredibly high tech. In fact, CNC Toolmaking is short for “Computer Numeric Controlled” mills and lathes; the parts made in these shops are typically highly specialized precision metal parts made to exact specifications. The parts are created by removing excess metal with the aid of machine tools, numerically controlled machines, computer assisted machinery, and precise measuring and gauging equipment. Graduates are hired by industries that manufacture vehicles, industrial machinery, military equipment, and other metal products.
The CNC Toolmaking facility at Saint Paul College is among the best in the area, making it a popular spot for visiting state legislators to learn about manufacturing and for local manufacturers to train their own employees.
“There is no other college shop that rivals the amount of machines and the technology we have,” says instructor Garrett Byrne. “For example, our three-wire EDM machine is extremely advanced.”
Within the industry, the CNC Toolmaking program at Saint Paul College has a stellar reputation – something Kachelmyer quickly realized when he decided to pursue his CNC Toolmaking diploma.
The desire to teach is exactly what brought the college’s newest toolmaking instructor, Ker Xiong, to the faculty. “I came to the United States in 1980 as a refugee from Laos and quickly learned that success was very difficult without any education,” says Xiong.
Xiong earned his bachelor’s degree in management and spent many years supervising unskilled workers, but he was driven to learn a skill he could teach to others so that they could improve their lives as well. “I went back to school and earned my dual diploma for CNC Machine Operator and CNC Programmer,” he says.
“As a machinist and CNC manager I enjoyed teaching others on the job, however I realized that becoming an instructor would allow me to make a bigger impact in people’s lives.”
Xiong is a full-time CNC Toolmaking instructor at Saint Paul College, joining the program’s three other full-time instructors and one part-time instructor. Because of high demand, the College plans to add more instructors in the near future.
There is a great demand for our graduates right now – I have companies calling and emailing about jobs every day. We want to show you around, talk to you, work with you, and teach you so that you can graduate, walk out the door, start working, and earn a great living.
-Garrett Byrne, Saint Paul College CNC Toolmaking Instructor
Opportunities for Everyone
One noteworthy aspect of Saint Paul College’s CNC Toolmaking program is its incredible student diversity. In particular, the program has gained a strong reputation within the Twin Cities Hmong community, and instructors estimate more than half of the currently enrolled students are of Hmong descent.
“The diversity of our staff is a big benefit for our students,” says Xiong. “Being a bilingual Hmong instructor has allowed me to help students who may not get that extra attention anywhere else. Plus, our staff has a variety of life and work experiences that allows us to connect and equip each student with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful machinists.”
Though CNC Toolmaking has not yet become a popular degree program for women, it offers many advantages for women who want a career in the trades. “Modern machine shops are very clean, comfortable, and climate-controlled, and the hours in these jobs are typically very regular,” says Haarbusch.
The instructors say their goal is to support every student who is willing to work hard and wants to earn their diploma in CNC Toolmaking. “Learning here – from the best instructors in the best facility available – will give any student an edge in becoming a successful machinist,” says Xiong.
By Megan Tsai, Contributing Writer
This article originally appeared in our College Magazine - Spring 2020.
Download a free copy to read more stories like this one.