Leading Schools Series: Iowa’s Rocket Manufacturing, a Student-Run Business


Like Cardinal Manufacturing in Strum, Wisconsin, Rocket Manufacturing in Rock Valley, Iowa takes “hands-on learning” to a whole new level. Both programs run actual manufacturing businesses with real clients, providing students with work experience in the trades before they even graduate from high school.

The revolutionary concept has the potential to solve two major problems, the “skills gap” and the “funding gap.” As for the latter, these in-school businesses self-produce the funding needed to maintain training programs in the industrial arts. Industrial arts programs in public high schools have dwindled nationally, in part because of a lack of funding. That’s not an issue for Rocket Manufacturing.

As for the skills gap, Rocket Manufacturing helps students learn the technical skills as well as the soft skills needed to run a successful manufacturing business. The program’s mission is to bridge “the skills gap by linking business and education while providing students with real world manufacturing experiences.”

History of Rocket Manufacturing

The concept of Rocket Manufacturing was first presented to the Rock Valley Community School Board in 2008, but the program didn’t take off until the spring of 2015. This was after former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration took interest in the idea. His STEM Advisory Council named Rocket Manufacturing a STEM BEST school and the program received a $25,000 award to help get things moving.

Along the way, instructors with Rocket Manufacturing met with the leaders of Cardinal Manufacturing in Wisconsin to receive advice and consultation.

During the first semester of the program in the spring of 2015, students participated in job shadows at local manufacturing businesses while Rocket Manufacturing worked on completing its own shop. That summer, instructor Todd Vander Velde spent six weeks shadowing workers at Valley Manufacturing.

By the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, Rocket Manufacturing was up and running as instructors continued to receive help from local businesses on appropriate machine usage and procedures. The 2016-2017 school year marked the start of manufacturing small parts for local clients.

As of the 2018-2019 school year, Rocket Manufacturing was running with little to no help from local businesses, though it continues its partnerships with local businesses so as to encourage students to enter the local workforce when they graduate.

Twenty juniors and seniors are accepted into the program annually after completing prerequisites and applying and interviewing for the program like any other job.

Rock Valley Schools Superintendent Chad Janzen said Rocket Manufacturing “fits the needs of all kinds of students.”

“What’s great about this program is any type of student fits into Rocket Manufacturing because there’s different niches and something in it for everybody,” he said.

Rocket Manufacturing provides a number of services for the local community, including CNC mill work, vinyl cutting, metal fabrication, CNC lathe work, welding, metal repair, plasma cutting, and woodworking. And since it’s a business, some students are tasked with managing the accounting side of the operation.

Micah Weber, an instructor with Rocket Manufacturing, stressed the importance of building relationships with local businesses in starting the program.

“The key part if you were another school that was looking at doing something like Rocket Manufacturing is community support—finding those two or three other major individuals in the community that would be willing to stand beside you and help guide you through everything,” he said.

The program continues to receive recognition throughout the state. The Northwest Iowa Development group presented Rocket Manufacturing with the Business Innovation Award in 2016. That same year, Rocket Manufacturing won first place in the “Governor’s Future Ready Iowa” promotional video contest.

When Ivanka Trump visited Iowa in March 2018, Gov. Kim Reynolds touted the success of Rocket Manufacturing.

With the new school year underway, Rocket Manufacturing is “back and ready to work.”

“We look forward to serving you in your agriculture, metal signs, custom work and machining needs,” the student-run business said on Twitter.

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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Rocket Manufacturing” by Rocket Manufacturing. 






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