Class Acts

The Weekly Report – September 11, 2023
Minnesota State College Southeast and manufacturers in the Winona area demonstrate the value of partnering.

The new school year presents a perfect backdrop to highlight some intriguing efforts between Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC) in Winona and area manufacturers. MSC has always enjoyed a healthy relationship with local manufacturers by providing skilled and knowledgeable employees in return for mentorship and support from those companies.

Two articles in the fall issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine® – hot off the press — demonstrate the fruits of these connections.

One of them is worthy of a Netflix documentary. It describes how a four-student team from MSC entered a national machining competition—Project MFG’s National Advanced Manufacturing Championships—that pitted them against schools across the country. They were first-time entrants: not just the students, but the school itself had never fielded a team before. Without really knowing what to expect, the group advanced through the early stages of the competition like seasoned pros.

They passed the initial phase of the competition by manufacturing parts at their school and sending them off to Project MFG. In the round of 16, the MSC team traveled to Wichita where they could show their skills on a five-axis CNC machine, a cutting tool that moves in five directions. (I didn’t know what it was either.) The challenge was they had never worked on the machine, mostly because the college didn’t own one.

Enter Rushford Manufacturing. MSC instructor Rick Hengel reached out to Rushford, which provided both machine time and a mentor. “One of their workers worked with us all day and stayed late into the night so we could run what we had programmed and try to prove things out,” Hengel says.

The practice proved golden. The MSC team returned from the national finals with the first place trophy. The four students on the team each received a $12,500 check, with the remainder of the $100,000 prize going to the machining program at MSC.

Winona-area manufacturers are proving their commitment to MSC and its students in other ways as well. Another Enterprise Minnesota magazine® article, part of a new series entitled “Making a Difference,” highlights a program created to provide a financial backstop for students at MSC.

The goal with the magazine series is to show how Minnesota’s manufacturers contribute more than economic value to the state and their communities. One way they do it in Winona is by supporting the recently established “College Opportunity Program,” a scholarship that covers tuition and other materials at MSC.

Among the program’s earliest and loudest cheerleaders is Dan Florness, CEO of Winona-based Fastenal, the global distributor of industrial and construction products. Four other manufacturers have also joined a group of companies and individuals committed to helping students overcome the financial barriers to higher education through the program.

Marsha Danielson, the college’s president, says the effort is beginning as a three-year, multi-million-dollar pilot program and has so far drawn outstanding support. “I was honestly blown away by the response from our local business community,” she says.

Sponsors didn’t limit the program to students pursuing specific fields of study, and they agreed not to require a minimum grade point average. “They didn’t want people to decide to go into an occupation in order to get the free tuition and fees,” says Danielson. “They wanted students to have the opportunity to go to college and improve themselves, wherever their passions lie.”

So far, almost 130 students have expressed interest in the program. Of those, 116 were admitted and 81 had registered at the college as of late July. “All of a sudden it opens up the opportunity for them to have a more meaningful career. And that’s better for everybody,” Florness says.

Across the state, manufacturers and their local colleges are building strong partnerships that benefit students, companies, and their communities.

It’s a real pleasure to share their stories. For the full articles, check out the latest issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine® here.

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