Pipeline for the Future

The Weekly Report – May 6, 2024
Northern Tool + Equipment’s program to equip high school trades classes helps educate the next generation of skilled workers.

To get a sense of the strong and growing collaboration between manufacturers and the educational institutions that prepare students to work for them, check out writer Suzy Frisch’s article on Northern Tool + Equipment’s Tools for the Trades™ program in the upcoming issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine.

Burnsville-based Northern Tool sells tools and equipment for those in the skilled trades through its 140 retail outlets across 24 states. The company also manufactures several lines of private label products aimed at the same market. Its production and retail efforts give Northern Tool a clear view of the skilled labor market, and it shares industry-wide concern about the persistent worker shortage.

“Our customers are people who work with their hands for a living, and we’ve heard from so many folks that they are really struggling to get people in the pipeline to learn their trade,” says Darcy Betlach, director of experiential marketing at Northern Tool. At Northern Tool’s retail stores, staff hear repeatedly from customers that they are looking for employees — do they know anyone?

Hearing so much about the shortage of trade workers in recent years led Northern Tool to start Tools for the Trades™, which contributes professional-grade tools and equipment to high school programs that train future skilled employees.

Launched to mark Northern Tool’s’ 40th anniversary in 2021, Tools for the Trades™ now donates between $5,000 to $20,000 of equipment to each school, often leveraging relationships with vendors or other businesses to make the more sizable contributions. The program gives to about 10 schools a year, focusing on underserved communities as much as possible.

Frisch’s article highlights two recipients of Northern Tool’s generosity – Lakeville North High School and Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. Using equipment and tools donated by Tools for the Trades™, students from the two schools have been working this year to design, fabricate, and assemble made-from-scratch, drivable, and running go-karts that will be test-driven by NASCAR superstar Richard Petty and renowned motorcycle builder Billy Lane.

Kevin Baas, a teacher in the STEM Engineering and Innovation department at Lakeville North, says that his students are so pumped to work on their go-kart that he can barely take attendance before they race into the shop. “As a teacher, this is a win-win,” Baas says. “They want to work on it immediately. They are learning tools and fabrication and engineering, and they are learning real world skills that will make them successful.”

Career and Technical Education classes like the one Baas teaches are expensive to run, and they are often a target for budget cuts. Minneapolis Roosevelt automotive teachers Zac Humphrey and Luther Kominski note that it’s common to run short of funding for consumables and updated tools. This causes a backlog of students waiting to get their hands on tools during class because there just aren’t enough to go around.

Northern Tools’ donation has been a game changer. “It’s really freed up the wait in class having all of these tools,” Humphrey says. “They are in better condition and better quality and there are more available, so you don’t have students sitting around waiting to do the work they need to do to complete the class.”

In addition to providing tools and equipment, the program taps the expertise of local tradespeople or Northern Tool employees, who share their knowledge with teachers and students. They often conduct master classes in welding or metalworking, share day-in-the-life information, and provide outside opportunities like job shadowing.

“Our mission is to honor and serve people who do the tough jobs. Think about the people in the trades tackling tough jobs every day — we want to pay tribute to them,” says Northern Tool’s CEO Suresh Krishna. “We looked around and decided that the best way to do that is to build the next generation of tradespeople.”

Look for this feature cover story in our magazine due out on May 22nd.

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