Northwestern students run a business – from their high school

Alex Smith grinding the slag off a side for a fire pit.

 

Giant metal wall-hanging cutouts of Lake Superior, business signs and pieces of wood and metal works of art sit among the vertical mills, lathes, band saws and welding equipment at Northwestern High School in Maple.

Students are affixing hangers to the back of wood and iron items for a craft fair on the weekend and others are returning phone calls and prepping invoices. Those in the nearby computer lab are talking about marketing and design.

If one didn’t know better, you’d think you were in a bona fide business instead of a high school shop class. 

Welcome to Tiger Manufacturing, where students not only learn valuable trade skills but also put their welding, machining and fabricating talents to work for profit. The industry is 100 percent student-run under the watchful eye of technology education instructor Laurence Charlier. The participants create works of art with metal and wood and also take on custom jobs from area residents and businesses. 

As much demand as there is for the students’ talents and services, the program is still all about the learning. Sales will top a humble $10,000 this year and all of that will go back into the program. True to this end, Charlier will not allow his students to become an assembly line. It’s all about the lesson. The words “Fail Forward” are prominently displayed on the wall and it is a motto he is married to.

“Technically, we could make hundreds of those Lake Superior wall hangings,” he said, “and we could charge a whole lot more for them. I even had a school board member point that out to me. But our customers are our neighbors, and we want to do right by them. We also want to remember that this is all about learning. Learning comes first. I let the students have their ideas, and sometimes I stand by and watch them make mistakes, but then we get to talk about what we should have done differently and what we can do better next time. How can we fix this now?”

The program, which was launched in 2016 by then-technical education instructor Joe Letko, has given the students plenty of learning opportunities.

Tiger Manufacturing President Alex Smith is 17. He greets visitors with a firm handshake, a convincing elevator speech and the confidence of someone on Wall Street. He also stands up at the beginning of the class, listens to ideas and disperses assignments. 

Smith, who is studying to be a pilot, said despite his aviation career choice, he has learned an abundance of useful life and business skills through Tiger Manufacturing.

“I understand what it takes now to run a business, source materials, engage with customers, and I can fix almost anything,” he said. 

Vice President Jack Puhl, 17, concurred. 

“These are great trades to learn,” he said. “They come in handy career-wise but they are also so valuable in life.”

Their instructor couldn’t agree more. “I feel that twenty-first century skills are so important,” Charlier noted. “Collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking are learned here. How to properly use the phone, how to work together, how to think ahead. And I believe these students will go far because of this.”

One such student is a female class member who Charlier deems the best welder.

“I asked her what she wanted to be when she graduated and she said a surgeon. I held up her work, took one look and said ‘Yes, I think you will be.’ She’s that good.”

Overall, Charlier couldn’t be happier to have landed with the students at Northwestern. 

“The first time I walked down these halls was for an interview. I was wearing a suit and tie,” he recalled. “I had students stopping me, shaking my hand and introducing themselves. Who does that anymore? I know what right looks like and these kids are right.”

Today, you’ll find Charlier dressed in Carhartts, often sitting among his students at lunch. He imparts not only valuable business skills, but life lessons.

“I want them to be good community members. I want them to see the value of Tiger Manufacturing donating to every community event and organization. I want them to understand running a business and what mutual respect looks like. Because of that, these students have ownership and a ton of pride in this business.”

The feeling is mutual among his young apprentices. 

“We treat him like one of us,” noted Puhl. “He’s very respectful of us and takes a lot of time to hang around after hours to help us with projects.”

One such endeavor is a veterans’ memorial underway for a park in nearby Brule. What was intended by its initiators to be a five-year project was streamlined and reworked by the Tiger team. It is now scheduled for a spring unveiling.

“We talked to them about other materials and creative ways of doing things and what was now a stretch over five years, We were able to look at them and say, ‘There, we can do it in less than one.’ We’ve learned through Tiger Manufacturing to look at all angles.”