In Randolph, a young entrepreneur retires to teach the next generation of manufacturing students

Brian Kippen, right, holds his son at the KAD Models quarterly open house in East Randolph. The open house aims to make making a topic of conversation around the kitchen table, Kippen said. courtesy photo

When Brian Kippen decided to open a location for his company, KAD Models and Prototypes, in East Randolph, he was excited about its proximity to Vermont Technical College and the Randolph Technical Career Center.

Three years later, he is teaching advanced manufacturing to high school students at the Randolph Center to introduce students to the field and train the next generation of skilled workers.

“I find that working here will probably be more beneficial in the long run than making parts for companies,” said Kippen, whose company designs and builds product and component prototypes. “You must be someone to replace me.”

Kippen, 39, estimates that 90% of Vermont manufacturing companies are looking to expand their workforce. He hopes that by introducing young people to advanced manufacturing, he can show that a job that was once considered “dirty, dark and dangerous” is now a well-paid and highly skilled technological field.

Kippen, a graduate of South Royalton High School, founded KAD Models in 2012 in Alameda, California and has worked on prototypes for companies such as Google, Tesla and Camelbak. The company expanded to East Randolph in 2019. Kippen said the addition of a Vermont location has doubled the size of its workforce and revenue, and opened its eyes to the world of manufacturing in the state of Green Mountain.

“There’s actually more manufacturing in New England than I expected,” he said, “but the entire state of Vermont needs people[to work]in manufacturing.”

So that year Kippen began teaching fabrication and manufacturing at the Randolph Technical Career Center. He has retained his role as Chief Executive Officer but has retired from most of KAD Models day-to-day operations. Part of that decision had to do with the role Vermont’s public education system played in his life.

“People may say Vermont isn’t very business-friendly because of X, Y and Z,” Kippen said, but “I see the benefits of being in Vermont. I was a public education child, although I will say I was a D student; I had great, influential teachers. You don’t get great stuff without paying for it in some way.”

Kippen, who splits his time between Tunbridge and Berkeley, California, currently has 10 students to whom he teaches skills ranging from welding to fabrication to mechatronics, a branch of engineering that encompasses mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering. He has helped upgrade the program’s computers, received a grant to purchase new manufacturing equipment, and will begin teaching computer-aided machining.

17 career centers and one collaborative

Vermont has 17 technical vocational training centers, 14 of which teach manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, or engineering. This year, nine of them have new instructors, according to Chris Gray, who teaches advanced manufacturing and engineering at the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield.

“These aren’t 60-year-old guys like me,” Gray joked. “These are young people … coming out of the industry with big eyes.”

Gray said some career centers had manufacturing apprenticeships that went vacant for two years. It’s exciting to have a new group of instructors.

A 10-minute drive from KAD Models, Barry Hulce is helping found the Vermont Manufacturing Collaborative at Vermont Technical College. The new advanced manufacturing center is a public-private partnership that gives students the opportunity to work on projects for real companies.

The goal, Hulce explained, is to make advanced manufacturing engineering and equipment accessible to both students and Vermont companies.

Hulce said Vermont companies are seeing “recycling” of skilled workers between companies. In order for companies to grow, the workforce must also grow.

One way the manufacturing cooperative hopes to solve this problem is through its industrial project program, which allows students to work on projects for companies and give them a glimpse of a career in advanced manufacturing.

“We have a long line of companies that have work to do,” Hulce said. “They can’t do it internally because they don’t have the resources. By engaging students in real-world projects, important work is being done while educating the future workforce.”

Students take the lead, sometimes communicate directly with the client, participate in regular progress updates, and are paid for their work, Hulce explained. Once the project is complete, Hulce sends the students’ bios to the client to facilitate recruitment.

“All manufacturing and mechanical engineering programs have 100 percent placement, and anyone who’s looking usually has an offer,” Hulce said, well before graduation. “These programs are really known for the skills the students come out with because they’re doing so much hands-on learning and completing real-world projects.”

Kippen has helped tremendously with the collaboration, Hulce said, by helping train some of the engineers at the center and offering industry insights. It’s all part of Kippen’s broader philosophy about Vermont manufacturing: A rising tide lifts all boats.

“In order for us to become any kind of manufacturing country again, we need to work together. We have to try to build things up so that companies don’t go broke because they can’t find people to work,” Kippen said. “That’s why I took the job as a teacher. You want to be able to say, ‘This is what is available and this is what can be done with it. And maybe you don’t need a college education to do well.’”

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