When Brian Kippen decided to open his KAD Models and Prototypes company in East Randolph, he was excited about his proximity to Vermont Technical College and the Randolph Technical Career Center.
Three years later, he now teaches advanced manufacturing to high school students at the Randolph Center in an effort to expose students to the field and prepare the next generation of skilled workers.
“I found that my work here could be more beneficial in the long run than producing parts for the company,” said Kippen, whose company designs and manufactures product and component prototypes. “They need someone to replace me.”
Kippen, 39, estimates that 90 percent of manufacturing companies in Vermont are looking to expand their workforces. He hopes that by introducing young people to advanced manufacturing, he can show that jobs once considered “dirty, dark and dangerous” are now a high-paying and high-skilled technical field.
A graduate of South Royalton High School, Kippen founded KAD Models in Alameda, California, in 2012, developing prototypes for companies such as Google, Tesla, and Camelbak. The company expanded to East Randolph in 2019. Kippen said adding the Vermont location doubled the size of his workforce and income, and opened his eyes to the Green Mountain State’s manufacturing world.
“There’s actually more manufacturing in New England than I expected,” he said, “but the whole state of Vermont needs people (working in manufacturing).”
So this year, Kippen began teaching fabrication and fabrication at the Randolph Technical Career Center. He retained the CEO role but stepped away from most of KAD Models’ day-to-day operations. Part of that decision has to do with the role Vermont’s public education system has played in his life.
“People might say Vermont isn’t the best place to do business because of X, Y, and Z,” Kippen said, but “I see the benefits of being in Vermont. I’m a public-educated kid, even though I say I’m a D student ;I had great, influential teachers. You don’t get good things without paying for them in some way.”
Currently working between Tunbridge and Berkeley, CA, Kippen has 10 students and teaches skills ranging from welding to fabrication and mechatronics, a branch of engineering that involves mechanical, electrical engineering and electronics. He helped upgrade the project’s computers, secured a grant to buy new fabrication equipment, and will begin teaching computer-aided machining.
17 career centers and a collaboration
Vermont has 17 career technical education centers, 14 of which teach manufacturing, advanced manufacturing or engineering. Nine of them have new instructors this year, according to Chris Gray, who teaches advanced manufacturing and engineering classes at the River Valley Technology Center in Springfield.
“These guys aren’t 60-year-olds like me,” Gray joked. “They’re young people … from the industry with their eyes wide open.”
Gray said manufacturing teaching positions at some career centers were left unfilled for two years. It is exciting to have a new cohort of lecturers.
Barry Hulce, a 10-minute drive from KAD Models, is helping to start the Vermont Manufacturing Collaborative at Vermont Technical College. The new Center for Advanced Manufacturing is a public-private partnership that gives students the opportunity to develop projects for real businesses.
The goal, Hulce explained, is to make advanced manufacturing learning and equipment accessible to Vermont students and businesses alike.
Hulce said businesses in Vermont are seeing “cycling” of skilled workers between companies. For businesses to grow, the workforce must grow too.
One way the Manufacturing Cooperative hopes to address this is through its Industry Projects program, which allows students to develop projects for companies that give them insight into career prospects in advanced manufacturing.
“We have a whole bunch of companies that need to get work done,” Hulce said. “They can’t do it in-house because they don’t have the resources. Engaging students in real-world projects gets important work done while training the workforce of the future.”
Students take the lead, sometimes communicate directly with clients, participate in regular progress updates, and get paid, Hulce explained. After projects are complete, Hulce sends student resumes to clients to help facilitate hiring.
“There are 100 percent placements in all of the manufacturing and mechanical engineer technology programs, and it seems like everyone usually gets an offer of admission long before they graduate,” Hulce said. “These programs are known for the high ability of their students because they do a lot of hands-on learning and complete real-world projects.”
Kippen has been a huge help in terms of collaboration, helping train some of the center’s engineers and providing industry insights, Hulce said. It’s all part of Kippen’s broader philosophy about manufacturing in Vermont: A rising tide lifts all boats.
“In order for us to be any kind of manufacturing powerhouse again, we need to work together. We need to work to get things to a point where companies don’t go out of business because they can’t find people,” Kippen said. “That’s why I work as an educator. You want to be able to say, ‘This is available, and this can be done with it. Maybe you don’t need a college education to do well.'”
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