Students on Saint Paul College’s professional cabinet-making program manufacture products for non-profit organisations, while learning their craft.

Evolving technologies make it challenging to train the next generation of manufacturers, but Saint Paul College embraces cutting-edge practices to ensure that its graduates are prepared for working life.

‘Our program is strictly a cabinet-making program and we expose our students to the practices of both traditional and modern cabinet-making,’ says instructor, Tom Hillstead of Saint Paul College, based in Minnesota, USA.

Mr Hillstead, a graduate of the college’s cabinet-making program, worked in the manufacturing industry until he was hired as an instructor at his alma mater in 2002.

As someone for whom a four-year college education centered solely on academics was not a good fit, he is well equipped to understand the desires and talents unique to his students.

‘I’m your typical technical college instructor: I went through the program, became involved in the industry and along the way I moved into teaching,’ says Tom.

‘I liked the idea of working with my hands and being a part of the production process,’ adds Tom, who became a lead instructor at the college in 2005.

‘I look at myself not as their instructor, but as their on-the-job mentor,’ he adds.

Twenty-nine is the average age of students enrolled in the program, which is popular among those who have been in the workforce and want to make a career change.

The program takes one year to complete and while graduates of the program have the option to earn an associate’s degree by completing the required additional academic course load, most earn a cabinet-making diploma and set out for the workforce.

‘We have people who come into the program who have a little woodworking experience and some who have never touched a tool in their lives,’ explains Tom.

‘We see many students who already have families and work experience; who have a four-year degree, but want to do something more creative,’ says Tom.

In 2009, the college adopted the Alphacam CAM system and the Cabinet Vision design-to-manufacturing solution as teaching tools to prepare students for CNC manufacturing.

‘When I was introduced to it, I liked the idea of running parts through machines. I realised even then that you either jump on board, or fall behind, explains Tom, who was working in the industry in the 1990s, when the use of CAM software and CNC machinery became increasingly prevalent.

‘The technology is definitely not eliminating jobs, but it is re-defining them and creating them,’ says Tom.

Cabinet-making students at Saint Paul College are provided with an educational experience as close as possible to a real-life manufacturing environment. Class sizes are limited to a maximum of 24 students, which ensures a high level of individual attention.

‘What we do in the program are larger production-based projects for non-profit-making organisations, such as Homeward Bound,’ Tom explains.

‘We partner with other programs and every year we do a kitchen remodel for one of their homes. My students get to use the software and machinery in a production environment,’ says Tom.

When they begin their projects, students visit installation sites, where they take measurements and assess potential challenges.

‘As far as I am concerned, that’s a better way to learn how to do real-world projects and, at the same time, we’re teaching them to give something back.

‘We’re also teaching the kind of skills that will make them more successful in the workforce, such as arriving at work on time, setting goals and being able to meet deadlines,’ says Tom.

Field measurement, project design and planning, cut-lists and material management are all part of the real-world learning process. Students receive instruction on traditional construction methods before they move on to CNC production.

‘We’ll use Cabinet Vision to generate cut-lists, then pull off the door and drawer box cut-lists and have them fabricate those with traditional equipment,’ explains Tom.

Once the students have a firm grasp on traditional construction methods, they begin using Cabinet Vision for project design.

‘We spend a great deal of time learning how to do the layout and they go into Cabinet Vision to do a lot of editing. As we go through, we learn how to nest parts and send the code to the machine.

‘Once they’re hired, they should be able to sit behind a computer pretty quickly and be able to do it on their own,’ says Tom.

The college utilises Alphacam to cut complex shapes, such as side engravings on doors, or one-of-a-kind parts for reception desks.

‘We use Alphacam more for individual and often odd parts and we spend a good deal of time with that,’ continues Tom.

Students take pride in completed projects, which enables them to experience the satisfaction of a job well done.

‘For me, the best days of the year are when we finish up and install, when we’re at the job site and the students are out there taking pictures.

Tom Hillstead notes that jobs for graduates are plentiful, which provides them with the opportunity to pick and choose among preferred specialities, such as commercial, or residential woodwork, as well as whether they’d like to work for ‘mom-and-pop’ shops, manufacturers on a national scale and everything in between.

‘The opportunities out there for students are just fantastic,’ he says.

‘People know that there are shortages in terms of skilled labour, but don’t really understand what these jobs are. Many of these are hi-tech positions. You have to be pretty good with computers and you have to have the necessary mathematical skills,’ adds Tom.

Graduates of Saint Paul College are frequently hired by shops in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which means that the school is a boon to the local economy.

‘With many trade jobs, there was a time when you could just hire someone off the street and they could do the job. Nowadays employers are going to technical colleges, because they want people interested in the trade and who have the required skills,’ explains Tom Hillstead on behalf of the college.

‘Unfortunately, we don’t have enough students to cover all of the jobs that are out there. Our students have probably never had the level of choices that they possess right now,’ concludes Tom.

For further information tel Alphacam and Cabinet Vision on 01189 756084. Visit or