Advanced Woodworking Lab Partners with Industry Leaders in Radical Approach to Teaching Wood Skills & More

The story of the Manufacturing Industry Learning Lab (MiLL) and how it has helped thousands of teenagers (even adults) choose a meaningful education and career is a feel-good story. It’s also a story of how one man is revolutionizing education by developing an education model that has captured the attention of corporations, educators, and even legislators.

Our story begins in 2008 with Dean Mattson, founder of Mattson’s Interiors, a Salem, Oregon cabinet manufacturing company. When the stock market crashed that year, so did his business.

However, as fate would have it, when one door closes, often another door opens. This was the case with Mattson.

He received a call from a woodshop teacher at North Salem High School who was planning to retire.

“This teacher called to see if he could use my network of woodworking business people to find a teacher to replace him. My wife, a teacher, urged me to check it out. So I did,” he says.

What he found at the high school was shocking.

“Nearly 30 percent of the students were homeless and many more were below the poverty line. After talking to the kids, I discovered they had a sense of not being appreciated or valued. As I learned more, I volunteered to teach every Friday for about six months.

“These kids started tugging at my heart as I realized they were considered throwaway kids. They were children who weren’t going to college and who were ill-equipped to succeed in life.

“Making matters worse, the teachers and administrators lacked the incentive to invest in these young people. They weren’t taking care of their customers, the students. I found this to be very disheartening and discouraging,” he relates.

Industry to the Rescue

Mattson resolved to fix the plight of these students. He began by reaching out to business associates and contacts he had made over 30 years in the cabinet making industry. They asked how they could help.

“I told them to send me any equipment and tools they could spare because the high school woodworking program in Salem is extraordinarily antiquated and the school district is not supporting it financially.”

Soon after truckloads of equipment arrived at the school – even before Mattson started teaching.

Within a couple of years, this program that began with 43 students had grown to 248 students with a 500-kid waiting list. By the end of six years, more than 3,000 skilled workers had graduated from the program.

It wasn’t long before other companies asked how they could help. They realized that by training students in woodworking, Mattson also was helping companies overcome shortages of industry skilled labor. It became a win-win situation for students and woodworking companies.

The school district hired Mattson as the high school’s Career Technical Education instructor, although he admits he didn’t know how to teach. He just taught how he trained employees.

“I started using lean manufacturing because I had all these students and one teacher, me. So the only way I could make it function was to make it lean and efficient– that is, every kid doing the same thing at one time,” he notes.

The program became an overnight success. In 2013, the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association awarded Mattson its Wooden Globe Award for Educator of the Year. North Salem High School was also named National Educator of the Year for the wood industry – beating out Ikea Corporation. It was one of only three schools to win the award in 118 years.
“Soon I had all these students. I had to hire my own educators as well as raise money for them because education said these kids are lost causes and aren’t worth anything to us,” Mattson adds.

Given the proper motivation and encouragement, the students prospered. Many went to college and some became Bill Gates scholars.

“One became a Ford scholar on his way to law school. This was after he was thrown into a dumpster when he was 2 years old and later became a gang banger.

“But we turned him around as we did so many others. Lots of kids started going to college and many got jobs because with woodworking they learned how to read, write, and do math,” he says.

The program provides students with core woodworking fundamentals like shop safety and tool operations but also covers advanced CNC machinery, cabinetmaking, lean manufacturing, mill lumber processing, and furniture design. After completing the program, students are able to calculate board feet estimations, construct a project timeline, compare and contrast flat sawn, quarter-sawn, and rift sawn lumber, and manage a lean team.

“Most beginning woodworking classes do a birdhouse. We start out making a cabinet,” Mattson declares.

“Students see a product through its full life-cycle – from a design prototype, its manufacture, and taking it to market. Upon successfully completing the program, they leave with practical work experience, industry certification, and often – jobs.”

Move to Colorado

Late 2014, Mattson received a request to reproduce the woodworking program in the small rural community of Peyton, Colo. Initially, he wasn’t interested. But after flying to Colorado to meet with the school superintendent, he accepted the offer.

“I got excited about taking my program to Colorado because the industry asked me to build them a national training center and to put this program into public schools throughout the United States,” he says.

“So we started the MiLL, a special industry-education partnership. MiLL is the new name for the National Manufacturing Training Center, established in Colorado Springs by the Peyton and Widefield School Districts.

The 46,000 square foot training center, equipped with $3 million of technology from its industry partners, will train high school, college, and industry in manufacturing. Currently, there are 74 industry partners involved in the training center, including companies like Stiles Machinery, Sherwin-Williams, Bessy, Kreg, Rikon, Wagner Meters, Bosch, 3M, Trident Tools out of Europe, and Time Savers.

“These corporations have placed state-of-the-art technology here because they want market position, they want students learning on their machines and technology, and they want to be part of the national training center which this industry has never had before,” Mattson says.

There are now four organizations using Mattson’s model: two in Colorado – Peyton and Colorado Springs, and two in Salem, Oregon: North Salem High School and the Career Technical Education Center.

The program in Colorado reaches out to a broad demographic. There are teenagers from charter, public, and private schools, as well as homeschooled kids from Peyton and Colorado Springs undergoing training. College kids, retirees from all five branches of the U.S. military and the Wounded Warrior Project, and people from the industry, as well as teacher training for Career Technical Education, will be trained at the MiLL.

Developing Today’s Young Woodworkers

In the nine years Mattson has directed this program, 4,000 students have completed it. One of the program’s top students is Colton Pring, a 19-year-old homeschooled youth from Peyton, who Mattson describes as being as “good as we’ve ever produced.”

Since completing the program, Pring helps teach other students twice a week as a graduate intern. He also works full time for a cabinet manufacturer.
Pring says he learned lean manufacturing and a multitude of skills, including everything from running his own company to operating an assortment of machines and applying computerized CNC technology.

One important skill he says he learned when making furniture was how to use a moisture meter. He uses it to determine the moisture content (MC) of the wood and to program it for the different species.

“Wagner Meters is one of our exclusive industry partners and they gave us several MMC220 pinless meters. I use this meter when I pick out my lumber and before building anything so I can test the MC and density of each piece of wood. The meter tells me whether or not it’s dry enough to be milled. When it’s at the right MC, I can mill it and keep it in shape without it bowing or splitting later on,” says Pring.

“I used to use a pin meter, but I’ve noticed the pinless meter is more accurate and doesn’t put holes in the wood. I keep one in my own shop and have used it to build some boats on the lake. It’s really quite unique and easy to use,” he adds.

Pring notes that his family has long worked in the trades which is perhaps one reason he felt drawn to woodworking. “I thought, why not try this. I’m glad I did because I fell in love with it.”

Mattson Model of Education

What’s being called the Mattson Model of Education or the MiLL model is turning American education upside down. It’s being considered for placement in schools and colleges throughout the United States. People from all over the world are coming to see this model in action. Even the United States Senate is reviewing it.

Mattson’s program is empowering students of all demographic backgrounds to learn the skills they need to work in today’s manufacturing facilities, as well as how to be excellent employees with integrity, drive, and the habits needed to succeed. It’s providing them with a support system to gain real-life learning experiences that help determine their future.

The program also is helping meet market demand. “There are 3.5 million unfilled manufacturing job opportunities in America right now,” says Mattson.
“That’s why the Chinese and Japanese have been able to ream American markets because there’s no manufacturing hardly going on in our nation. American companies can’t get enough skilled workers.

“This program is going to change that. It’s going to provide companies with a well-trained and skilled workforce.”

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