Cardinal Alumni Say Soft Skills are Key for Success

Hearing from alumni of Eleva-Strum High School's Cardinal Manufacturing program, there's no doubt that learning soft skills were just as important as practical machining and welding skills.


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The American Mold Builders Association hosted a plant tour on June 27 at a small company that we’ve all heard quite a lot about since it was launched seven years ago: Cardinal Manufacturing in Strum, Wisconsin. I finally made it out to see this student-run facility up close and was very impressed by the layout of the place, the equipment in it, and by the never-ceasing dedication of Craig Cegielski, instructor, founder and director of Cardinal. But I was especially enthralled by the students and alumni we met.

During the tour of Eleva-Strum School District’s Cardinal Manufacturing wing, AMBA members were given the opportunity to meet both current student employees and alumni. Let me tell you, these were very impressive youngsters. Current employees were busy and very focused on the tasks at hand. They were appropriately dressed, wearing eye protection and close-toed shoes. They looked and acted confident and more mature than most kids their age (in my experience). If I didn’t know they were working for a school-sponsored company to learn real-world skills, I’d have thought the operation was a small machine and welding shop start-up.

It was when we met five of the Cardinal alumni that I began to understand the effect participating in this program has on the students. For one, it gives them a reason to walk taller. Cardinal Manufacturing is geared to teaching, but it’s run like a business because it serves real customers from the region. Students learn, by doing, an array of skills, from marketing services to quoting jobs, ordering supplies, managing inventory, keeping books and invoicing, and so on. It’s not just about the actual production work. Every student has skin in the game, as they say, and being given that responsibility is empowering. “There’s no doubt that learning the soft skills was key to our getting a leg up on job opportunities after graduation,” said Tom Brazeau, who grew up on a farm, worked at Cardinal while in high school, attended technical college and today is looking to start his own machining company. He has already purchased his first CNC machine, and told AMBA members that Cardinal Manufacturing kept him in school. “You feel needed,” he said. “The freedom and trust that you’re given as part of the program really made me feel like I was part of something important.”

Cole Nichols agreed, saying he and his fellow Cardinal alumni have a kind of “celebrity status” in the eyes of current students. “We felt more peer pressure to go into the Cardinal Manufacturing program than to avoid it,” he explained. “You’re a rock star if you make the team because everybody wants do it.” Cole earned a mechanical engineering degree and said he had three job offers right out of college.

Dana Kensmoe, who was the only girl when she participated in the Cardinal program (someone commented that she could out-weld some of the guys), works as a welder now and said she’s the only woman welder where she’s employed. Tycon Rohrscheib attends the University of Wisconsin, Stout, and says because of his experience at Cardinal, he would like to become a technical education instructor. Last, but not least, is Austin Beyton, who, inspired by his time at Cardinal, works as a CNC machinist in Chippewa, Wisconsin.

The takeaway for me is the value of learning how being a team player, a good communicator, responsible, resourceful and creative, and all those other soft skills, and applying them to real life leads to positive futures. These alumni have proven that combining practical skills with those that nurture employability is the key to success.

If you read MMT, or our sister publication Modern Machine Shop, then you’ve heard the story of Cardinal Manufacturing. If the existence of this role model machining and welding shop run by students and Mr. Cegielski is news to you, just do a search on either of our magazines’ websites. I can assure you that you will come away quite inspired.