When Brian Kippen decided to open a location for his business, KAD Models and Prototypes, in East Randolph, he was excited about its proximity to Vermont Technical College and the Randolph Technical Career Center.
Three years later, he now teaches advanced manufacturing to high school students in downtown Randolph in an effort to introduce students to the field and educate the next generation of skilled workers.
“I think my work here will probably be more useful in the long run than making parts for companies,” said Kippen, whose company designs and builds prototypes of products and components. “There will have to be someone to replace me.”
Kippen, 39, estimates that 90% of Vermont’s manufacturing companies are looking to expand their workforce. By introducing young people to advanced manufacturing, he hopes to show that work that was once considered “dirty, dark and dangerous” is now a well-paid and highly skilled technological field.
Kippen, a South Royalton High School graduate, founded KAD Models in 2012 in Alameda, Calif., working on prototypes for companies such as Google, Tesla and Camelbak. In 2019, the company expanded to East Randolph. Kippen said adding the Vermont location doubled the size of his workforce and revenue and opened his eyes to the world of manufacturing in the Green Mountain State.
“There’s actually more manufacturing going on in New England than I expected,” he said, “but the whole state of Vermont needs people (to work) in manufacturing.”
So this year, Kippen began teaching manufacturing and fabrication at the Randolph Technical Career Center. He retained his role as CEO, but stepped back from most of the day-to-day operations of KAD Models. Part of that decision had to do with the role of Vermont’s public education system in his life.
“People may say that Vermont is not the best place to do business because of X, Y and Z,” Kippen said, but “I see the benefits of being in Vermont. I was a public education kid, although I said I was a D student; I had great, influential teachers. You can’t get great things unless you pay for them in some way.”
Currently, Kippen — who spends his time between Tunbridge and Berkeley, California — has 10 students he teaches in skills ranging from welding to manufacturing and mechatronics, a branch of engineering that includes mechanics, electrical and electronics. He helped upgrade the program’s computers, received a grant to purchase new manufacturing equipment, and will begin teaching computer-aided machining.
Vermont has 17 career technical education centers, 14 of which teach manufacturing, advanced manufacturing or engineering. This year, nine of them have new instructors, according to Chris Gray, who teaches advanced manufacturing and engineering at the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield, Vt.
“These are not 60-year-olds like me,” Gray joked. “They are young people … coming from the industry with their eyes wide open.”
Gray said some career centers have had manufacturing teaching positions that have been vacant for two years. It is exciting to have a new group of instructors.
A 10-minute drive from KAD Models, Barry Hulce is helping start the Vermont Manufacturing Collaborative at Vermont Technical College. The new Advanced Manufacturing Center is a public-private partnership that gives students the opportunity to work on projects for real companies.
The goal, Hulce explained, is to make advanced manufacturing learning and equipment available to Vermont students and businesses.
Hulce said Vermont businesses are seeing “recycling” of skilled workers between businesses. For businesses to grow, the workforce must also grow.
One of the ways the Manufacturing Collaborative hopes to solve that problem is through an industrial projects program, which allows students to work on projects for companies, giving them a glimpse of what a career in advanced manufacturing would look like.
“We have a long line of companies that need work done,” Hulce said. “They can’t do it internally, because they don’t have the resources. Engaging students in real-world projects does important work while training the future workforce.”
Students take the lead, sometimes interact directly with the client, participate in regular progress updates and are paid for their work, Hulce explained. After the project is completed, Hulce sends the student’s resume to the client to facilitate recruitment.
“All mechanical engineering manufacturing and technology programs have 100% placement, and anyone who applies usually has an offer” long before graduation, Hulce said. “Those programs are really well known for the abilities of the students that come out, because they’re doing so much hands-on learning and completing real-world projects.”
Kippen has helped greatly with the collaboration, Hulce said, helping to train some of the center’s engineers and offering industry insights. It’s all part of Kippen’s larger philosophy about Vermont manufacturing: A rising tide lifts all boats.
“In order to become any kind of manufacturing country again, we have to work together. We have to try to build things to the point where companies don’t go under because they can’t find people to work,” Kippen said. “This is the reason why I took the position of educator. You want to be able to say, ‘This is what is available and this is what can be done with it. And maybe you don’t need a college education to be good.’ “