MADISON, Wis. - For instructors at Madison Area Technical College, training a new generation of woodworkers entails the use of modern tools to teach the art and science of the time-honored craft.
Preparing students enrolled in the school’s cabinetmaking and millwork program for jobs in the industry includes providing learning tools that work for a range of diverse students, including those with full-time jobs — many already in woodworking positions. Students with no exposure to the trade start at the beginning, with hand tools and plenty of elbow grease.
“They learn a broad range of skills, from hand layout all the way up to CNC,” said Patrick Molzahn, cabinetmaking and millwork director at Madison Area Technical College, which offers five locations in the greater Madison, Wisconsin, area. “As a full-time, comprehensive program, our students learn to use traditional woodworking machinery, as well as the latest technologies.”
The cabinetmaking and millwork program was established in 1911, and Molzahn —who was initially hired to teach a woodworking course at the school — has been at its helm for nearly 20 years. A former contractor and business owner, Molzahn taught English overseas for two years and found that he enjoyed the interaction with students.
“This position is a great marriage of all of my skills and talents, my communication capabilities, and my love of teaching and woodworking,” said Molzahn.
Teaching students how to use the cutting-edge technologies used by potential employers is a significant portion of the program, the broad scope of which is designed to teach everything from project planning and working with prints to programming and operating CNC machinery.
In 2005, the school began using the Alphacam computer-aided-manufacturing (CAM) solution, by Vero Software, as an instructional tool for its cabinetmaking and millwork students. While the college had formerly utilized a different CAM solution — a system still used in its metal shop — the school found that Alphacam was a much better fit for its woodworking students.
“The programming data in Alphacam is specifically for wood and it has better data for wood, which makes it a lot more user friendly to work with,” said Molzahn. “Nesting in Alphacam, as well as the lead in and lead out capabilities, are also much better than the previous software. All around, it seemed like a product designed for a woodworker as opposed to one designed for metal.”
With just 16 students per year enrolled in the year-long technical-diploma program, each student receives plenty of one-on-one instruction, which includes learning how to operate a nested-based router. A shorter program, through which students earn technical certificates, is also available. With a total of about 1,100 hours training for the workforce, students in the cabinetmaking and millwork program are a draw for potential employers.
“In the past five years, the demand for CNC programmers and operators has been huge, and it’s neat because many of our young people get into positions like those because some of the older, more experienced woodworkers don’t want to touch the newer technologies.”
In response to both demand from the industry and the needs of students, the cabinetmaking and millwork program is being expanded to offer a new section every eight weeks. Offering multiple sections throughout the year creates numerous opportunities for new students and experienced woodworkers alike to refine or gain skills.
For instance, experienced woodworkers who want to delve into CNC manufacturing can learn Alphacam by enrolling in CNC-based sections instead of committing to a year-long technical-diploma program.
“Alphacam works really nicely for our students because it has excellent tutorials,” said Molzahn. “We can walk our students through tutorials and make short videos that can be easily shared. A lot of the materials were already developed, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Molzahn, who was hired by publisher Goodheart-Willcox to revise the popular textbook, Modern Cabinetmaking, is also in the process of developing instructional modules for independent learning. These modules, available through Madison Area Technical College, will enable students to complete the program at their own pace, and will include Web-based media and videos.
“What I’m seeing is that the whole education market is changing and people aren’t committing to long-term schooling,” said Molzahn. “They just want to upgrade their skills, and to stay current with the industry, which includes the use of CNC. Employers don’t just hire in May; they hire when they need help. That’s why we want to offer courses throughout the year.”
The modules, which will offer Alphacam instruction, will allow students to complete some of the learning at home, though use of the CNC machinery would take place on campus.
“Students work at their own pace, at their own time and for their own advancement,” said Molzahn. “If a student is already in the industry, they can take the CNC modules, or modules based on their experience.”
A benefit to offering courses that cater to the professional woodworker is that cabinetmaking and millwork students with no exposure to the industry are able to learn right along with experienced woodworkers.
“I like that mix of bringing people already in the industry into the classroom and having them work side-by-side with our students because it raises the maturity level and allows students to think of the different possibilities for their futures,” said Molzahn. “Any time you get a dialogue going between people looking to go into a career and people already in that career, they all benefit.”
Clearly committed to the ongoing success of U.S. woodworkers, Molzahn is a founding member of the Woodwork Career Alliance (WCA), an organization that promotes a skilled workforce for an advanced woodworking industry.
Molzahn was a chief architect of the WCA’s credentialing standards and has been a member of the organization’s board of directors since it was established in 2007. He continues to oversee the WCA EDUcation Committee, which helps members to receive ongoing education and credentials for career advancement.
Madison Area Technical College also periodically offers popular woodworking seminars on a range of topics that draw attendees from other states. “I’ve had people come from all over the country for these seminars because people are hungry for knowledge, but they don’t have many opportunities,” said Molzahn.
Of course, the hunger for educational opportunity is a reflection of an ongoing demand for skilled woodworkers.
“Many of our students get jobs before they graduate, and they get requests from all over the country,” said Molzahn. “If we have 15 graduates, we typically have 300 to 350 offers.”
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