‘Favorite class of the whole day’: MiLL introduces students to manufacturing

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Safety glasses on, and wood slabs in hand, Mesa Ridge freshman Angelo Williams works on what will soon be an end table.

“It’s really cool. We cut wood, we build it,” Angelo said. “We learn a lot about the vocabulary of woodworking and the ways and efficiency of how to get it done.”

He is just one of about 200 students who attend class at the Manufacturing Industry Learning Lab National Training Center, or MiLL, every day.

“Growing up, it was always 'sit down in classrooms. Take notes. Take tests,'” Angelo said. “But here, it’s open roam. They teach you how to use it, and it’s hands-on, really. So I think it’s really cool. It’s not like any other classroom ever.”

The training center came together as a partnership between Widefield School District 3 and Peyton School District 23JT. The school districts worked together to buy the 46,600-square-foot building near the airport and bring in millions of dollars’ worth of equipment from industry partners for the students to learn on and use.

“Industry is the leading source here. They tell us what they want their next generation of employees to look like, how they want them to be taught. They give us the technology. We do the teaching. We don’t go to them and say, ‘We’re teaching this, can you supply this?’ That model is broken,” said Dean Mattson, MiLL founder and president.

The high school students are bused to the training center every day on buses that have wireless internet, so the students can work on homework during the ride. Once at the MiLL, they can take a variety of classes ranging from construction to woods manufacturing and soon, welding will be included.

“The students that don’t do well in mainstream education … they can come here, and they just blossom,” Mattson said.

He wants students to recognize that there are other pathways to success besides attending college.

“College is not for everybody. Only 38 percent of jobs in the United States require four-year degrees. So what are you going to do with the rest of the 62 percent?” Mattson said.

Students who take classes at the MiLL can get national certifications that they can then use to get internships or jobs in their career field.

“Every one of our students has multiple job offers anywhere they want to go in the United States,” Mattson said. “We have over 100 employers that are begging every day for our students, and now, we’re just starting to get some graduates that are graduating the program so that we can start filling those.”

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the United States will need to fill roughly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade. So the MiLL students are in high demand.

One student told 11 News she rethought her college plans after taking classes at the MiLL.

“Thinking about it, I do want to do it as a career because, not the fact that they make a lot of money, but it’s the fact that we build stuff and make it for other people, and then those people will like our product,” said Marilie Hill, a senior at Mesa Ridge High School.

Marilie said this was her first year taking the course, and she’s loved it.

“I think it’s really good for girls because people think that it’s only for guys or something because they’re getting their hands dirty, but getting your hands dirty, being able to sand and use the machines is actually not just for guys,” Marilie said. “Anybody can do it.”

Even if students don’t want to make a career out of manufacturing, the skills they learn in class can benefit them throughout their lives.

“Personally I want to be a physics professor, but this definitely is really great,” Angelo said. “In case you’re like 10 years down the road, I’ve got to build a new table, I have all my prior knowledge from here.”

The training center isn’t just for high school students, though. The MiLL also partners with Red Rocks Community College to offer classes for college credit. Classes are also offered for adults in the evening at the MiLL.

“That’s what this is all about — giving people of all ages now great opportunities to do things that they really like to do and make a good living doing it,” Mattson said.