In the 1980s, when many high schools were closing their woodshops, Oregon’s North Salem High School was building its wood program with a passion for fine craftsmanship. Now the Viking Wood Manufacturing program is one of the largest wood manufacturing educational programs in the United States.

Under director Andy Chidwick, the program aims to connect education with industry by nurturing career readiness and a professional mindset in today’s generation of young woodworkers.

“Anyone who comes into the woodshop at North Salem High School will quickly realize there is something special going on here,” says Chidwick, who has managed the program since 2015. “Woodworking is just our cover.”

It’s especially important for a Title One school like North Salem, with a large percentage of its students sitting below the poverty line. Other students are homeless.

Teaching over 500 students per year, the program not only provides students with core woodworking fundamentals like shop safety and tool operations, but also it covers advanced CNC machinery, cabinetmaking, lean manufacturing, mill lumber processing, and furniture design. Upon program completion, students will be able to calculate board foot estimations, construct a project timeline, compare and contrast flat sawn, quartersawn, and rift sawn lumber, and manage a lean team.

“Students see a product through its full life-cycle – from a design prototype, its manufacture, and then they’ll learn how to take it to market,” says Chidwick.

Students who complete the program successfully leave with practical work experience, industry certification, and sometimes – jobs.

In 2012, under former program director Dean Mattson, Joe Wadsworth, vice-president of Washington-based millwork firm Custom Source Woodworking, spent a day at the school. By the end of the day, Custom Source had committed to hiring five seniors from North Salem’s wood program.

Wadsworth, founder and vice president of Custom Source, was obviously impressed with the program. He did, after all, hire some of these kids.

"What Dean is training, and what he's teaching in work ethic and integrity, that's what we're looking for," Wadsworth said.

Wadsworth had been looking to partner with a high school that was aggressively training students for a career in the industry. When he heard Mattson speak at a woodworking conference about his program and his students, Wadsworth knew that he had found it at North Salem.

And it isn’t just Custom Source. Mattson, named 2013 Wooden Globe Educator of the Year by the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association, and with 30 years in the woodworking industry, is credited with connecting North Salem with industry partners.

"They (partners) come help set the curriculum, work with students for four years, take cream of the crop from over 1,000 kids, and the risk is zero. When these kids graduate, they know this company and the company knows them.”

Chidwick, like Mattson before him, operates the program like a business, or a company. He holds a production meeting at the start of each class, and then sends students off to work on their projects.

"Most beginning classes do a birdhouse," Mattson said. "We start out making a cabinet."

At the close of 2014, Mattson received a request to reproduce the program in Peyton, Colorado. He accepted, and passed his responsibilities at North Salem to Chidwick. Since Chidwick’s arrival in early 2015, the program has undergone extensive modernization. Also new is a post-graduate internship program.

In the two-year Career Kickstart program, Chidwick selects a few standout graduates to come back to mentor students at North Salem, while continuing their education at a nearby community college. Upon completion, Chidwick works with each student to secure a paid local job in the industry.

“We want to provide top graduates with a transitional pathway to career opportunities. We give them leadership training, networking opportunities, and job experience.”

The program began in 2015 when Chidwick took recent high school graduate Jose Hernandez to AWFS in Las Vegas. Hernandez returned from the trip more impassioned, so Chidwick asked him to come back to North Salem.

“Until that summer, I didn’t fully understand the potential for my future in this industry,” says Hernandez. “Even with all the support for our program, I couldn’t see it. At AWFS, my eyes were opened. That trip changed my life.”

Now Hernandez is employed as an associate instructor at Mattson’s new wood program in Peyton, Colorado.

This year, Chidwick brought three young interns to the International Woodworking Fair (IWF) in Atlanta. One of the students was Lorena Reyes-Gutierrez, an aspiring woodworker and CNC programmer who was recognized as North Salem’s Turnaround Student of the Year in 2015.

“These days at IWF have been truly eye-opening,” says Reyes-Gutierrez. “I was able to making connections for my future, which boosted my confidence in myself.”

With Reyes-Gutierrez were Tim Schroeder and Savannah Murphy, who just like Hernandez at AWFS, felt that attending an industry tradeshow like IWF was extremely helpful.

Left to right: interns Lorena Reyes-Gutierrez and Savannah Murphy, director Andy Chidwick, and intern Tim Schroeder at IWF 2016.

“IWF helped me see how big this industry truly is,” says Schroeder, who aspires to start his own furniture making business.

“Seeing all these great companies at the same time opened my eyes,” continued Murphy, who hopes to improve her leadership skills by mentoring at North Salem. “It gives me confidence.”

Bringing students to industry tradeshows like IWF is in alignment with Chidwick’s goals for the program: developing career readiness and professional attitude. He says in order to meet those goals, networking is critical.

“The importance of networking is well known in the professional world but can be a mystery for a recently graduated student. Our program provides interns the change to build their professional network by exposing them to the behind-the-scenes world of industry relationships and creating a portfolio of professional contacts early on in their careers,” he said.

Going forward, Chidwick hopes to add more students to the program and Career Kickstart, and connect more students with local industry externships.