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Travis Thul had an intractable problem as the dean of trade and technology at Minnesota State College Southeast.

The Upper Mississippi River region is the most industrial-, manufacturing- and engineering-dense region of the country when ranked by jobs per capita, “rivaled only by the Ohio-Indiana corridor,” Thul said.

“Yet we are unbelievably shorthanded in the advanced manufacturing realm, especially when you look outside the metro area.”

Thul said it’s the school’s job to build professionals to keep the gears of industry churning. To do that, he added, the college needs to attract students to mechanical engineering and technology degree programs so that they can get jobs at major area manufacturers like Winona-based Fastenal, which makes fasteners.

But it’s tough to get high school students excited about making nuts and bolts. So Thul pitched a new approach: The nation’s first two-year degree program in bicycle design and fabrication.

“This idea is crazy, by the way,” Thul said. “My boss, the vice president and the president [of the college] and all the way up and down the chain of command are like, ‘This is ridiculous. You’re spinning your wheels here.’ ”

Thul noted that the school’s Red Wing campus already has a guitar building and repair program, “and it’s full all the time and it attracts people from all over the planet. So by gosh, this is less crazy than that, right?”

The new bike program has a ready market for graduates.

“Between Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, I think there’s like $2 billion if not more in industry that’s bicycle centric,” Thul said, citing Trek Bicycle, Hed Cycling Products, Park Tool, Quality Bicycle Products and Erik’s Bike Shops as examples. “And that doesn’t count all of the small employers that do custom bike frames.”

Thul said he recently received a call from a manufacturer in Montreal who wanted to hire some of the program’s graduates, but Thul had to explain that the first class won’t graduate until 2021.

The skills the students will learn designing and building bikes will transfer to other engineering jobs as well.

“If I can build a student who knows how to do 3-D CAD [computer-aided design], CNC [computer numeric control] machining, welding, that graduate can get a job anywhere in our area of responsibility,” Thul said. “Whether or not they learn those skills on building bicycles or bobsleds is immaterial. If you know how to build a drive train, if you know gearing ratios, if you know the difference in welds in aluminum and steel, you can get a job anywhere, not just working on bicycles.

“It’s a two-year applied mechanical engineering degree, is what it is. It’s wrapped around the deliverable of bicycle, bike frame design and apparatuses. So you’re taking this emotional deliverable, or this emotional application, and you’re wrapping it over the underpinnings of a mechanical engineering technology degree.

“This is how we sell advanced manufacturing to Generation Z. I cannot successfully sell advanced manufacturing to the degree that we need to using the 1980s, 1990s methodology, verbology and philosophy. We need to repackage this curriculum in a way that is marketable to our core customer.”

Community college enrollments are declining nationwide, at least partly because the strong economy has lured students into the workforce.

As a result, it’s hard to convince students that they should forgo earning two years’ worth of income and ask them to pay $10,000 in tuition on top of that, Thul said, even if a diploma does typically bring a higher salary.

Graduates of the program can expect jobs as engineering, test, manufacturing or quality control technicians, as mechanical designers or production specialists. The median wage for manufacturing technicians in Minnesota is $26.44 an hour.

Students can begin taking general education classes now. The bike engineering lab will open next fall.

“We have received a very significant amount of interest in the program,” Thul said. “To start a first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation program like this, if we could start with 18 [students], that would be a monumental success.

“We want to make sure as a community technical college that we’re able to serve our industry by training the technical professionals of tomorrow. How we train them is, I think, how we get them in the door; what we train them is how we get them in the doors of our industrial partners.”

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