Regardless of what you want to call the workforce disparity facing manufacturing—skills
gap, perception gap, awareness gap, execution
gap—Thul knew there needed to be a different
approach to help solve the problem. So, with
MSC Southeast’s unique Bicycle Design & Fabrication program, Thul is out to prove to Gen
Zers why a career in manufacturing is a good
fit. And instead of flaunting advanced manufacturing buzzwords or generalized industry jargon, he altered the perception with specificity.
“I can go into a high school and I say, ‘Who
wants to learn how to machine some threads
on a pipe?’ That’s a real hard pitch to make
to a 16-year-old,” Thul said. “But if I say, ‘Who
wants to learn how to precision-machine the
interface between the handlebars and the bike
frame?’ That’s a very different pitch, but it’s the
exact same competencies.”
The approach has worked. When the college
announced the program in fall 2018, there was
immediate interest. As of February, MSC South-
east’s Bicycle Design & Fabrication program is
nearly 50 percent full and has drawn in enroll-
ees from as far as Singapore and Colombia.
Thul even expects there to be a wait list due to
the tremendous enrollment pace.
“As a metric, programs don’t typically fill up until a week or so before the semester starts,” Thul
said. “So being in this position is quite amazing.”
Upper Mississippi River Manufacturing
MSC Southeast has carved out a reputation as an
institution that thinks, even teaches, outside the
box. In recent years the technical college also created a Guitar Repair & Building program, one of
just a few in the nation, that has become widely
popular and renowned within the music industry.
But Thul saw a need for MSC Southeast to
better serve the region’s diverse manufacturing base.
“We have people from around the planet
that enroll in [the guitar program] not because
there’s a huge unmet need for guitars, but be-
cause there’s an emotional appeal to that tech-
nical skill set,” Thul said. “I think the bicycle can
do the same as the guitar, but also meet many
of the advanced manufacturing needs of our lo-
Located on the banks of the Mississippi River
less than 60 miles south of the Twin Cities, the
college is smack-dab in the middle of the Upper
Midwest—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and
Iowa. “The upper Mississippi River region is one
of the densest manufacturing and engineering
regions of the country,” Thul said.
Besides the bevy of manufacturing companies in Chicago and Milwaukee, the immediate
area surrounding the college boasts several notable companies, such as Red Wing Shoes, 3M,
Gemini Manufacturing, Valley Craft Metal Fabrication, Fastenal, and additive manufacturing
(AM) company Protolabs.
But the Upper Midwest is also home to a significant number of the country’s major bicycle and
part component manufacturers: Park Tool in St.
Paul; Trek in Waterloo, Wis.; Quality Bicycle Products (QBP) in Bloomington, Minn.; Hed Cycling
in Roseville, Minn.; Wyatt Bicycles in La Crosse,
Wis.; and Gunnar Cycles in Waterford, Wis.
And much like the rest of the manufacturing
industry, the bicycle-making trade shares the
common problem of finding enough workers for
positions like engineering technicians, quality
control technicians, and production technicians.
“The bicycling folks absolutely need skilled
personnel,” Thul said. “The demand for people
is very, very high and the amount of incoming
skilled workers is relatively low. I was up at Park
Tool and they made it very clear that they need
people across all these different competencies.
But, simultaneously, if I go over to 3M, they’ll
say the exact same thing.”
Through the Bicycle Design & Fabrication pro-
gram, Thul believes he can create an employ-
ment pipeline to fulfill skilled job requirements
that go beyond just bicycle manufacturing.
The first year will focus on learning applied
fabrication skills such as machining; welding;
prototyping; as well as taking a class called “The
History of the Bicycle,” which will study how the
bike has evolved since the early 19th century
and how it has democratized transportation.
In the second year, students study technical
engineering, learning how springs, belts, gears,
drivetrains, ball bearings, and power transmissions work, as well as studying thermodynamics, physics, and aerodynamic drag.
“These students will never leave class asking,
‘When am I ever going to use this?’” Thul said.
“They are going to come into class and ask,
‘How can I take this and make it a better prod-
uct?’ They can immediately take a hypothetical
or generic application and turn it into reality.”
“We have Red Wing Shoes right here in town,”
Thul said. “What if [a student] partnered with
them to build lightweight, custom bike shoes
for low drag? There are a lot of synergies avail-
able, not just for the bicycle itself.”
When a student knows when they’re going
to apply something they studied, that changes
the perspective on education and focus in the
classroom and, ultimately, the attitude about
getting into a manufacturing career—all thanks
to the bicycle.
“If I can produce somebody that can understand rapid prototyping, 3D modeling, metal fabrication, welding, and some design,” Thul said,
“that’s a very marketable employee, whether
they’re building bicycles or something else.”
Digital Editor Gareth Sleger can be reached at
» The Bicycle Design & Fabrication program was the
brainchild of Travis Thul, dean of trade and technology
at Minnesota State College Southeast.
»As of February, MSC Southeast’s Bicycle Design &
Fabrication program is nearly 50 percent full and has
drawn in enrollees from as far as Singapore and Colombia.
“So much of the knowledge needed
for machining and mechanical design
can be learned by building a bicycle.
It’s an application that everybody
can empathize with, understand,
and feel a connection with.”
—Travis Thul, Minnesota State College Southeast