“We must continue to bridge that gap between industry and education. There are amazing jobs out there for people to make a fantastic living. We need to find ways to educate our students about all the jobs and educate the workforce about all the students interested in trades.”

Joe Gabardi has been teaching automotive, industrial metals, and work-based learning courses since 2003, and at Nashwauk-Keewatin High School since 2006. He developed an early passion for skilled trades through his father, an industrial arts teacher, and his grandfathers, a contractor and an auto mechanic. His interests always pointed him towards hands-on work. But it wasn’t until his Auto 2 class in high school, when he spent a whole day explaining drum brakes to his classmates, that he was inspired to pursue teaching. Gabardi completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Education, has a vocational license in Automotive, Manufacturing, and Work-Based Learning, and runs his own fabrication shop.

Gabardi strives to create a learning environment that reflects industry experience and to prepare his students for skilled trades careers. His students can participate in a semester of coursework at the local technical college, where they gain confidence working side-by-side with ASE certified college instructors. He often hears back how prepared his students are for entering technical school and works hard to support their success by staying up to date on new processes in technology and equipment.

Gabardi also created a work-based learning manufacturing pathway; during the school year, seniors complete a paid manufacturing internship while participating in a weekly seminar, where they learn soft skills, resume writing and interviewing, and receive OSHA-10 training. Gabardi and his students also complete an annual “big build,” and past successes include fully functioning hovercraft, electric skateboards, remote-controlled lawn mowers on tracks, and a drop-down fish house. Across their tight-knit Nashwauk community, students regularly complete projects like small engine repair, vehicle alignments, changing oil, and rotating tires.

Thanks in large part to Gabardi’s efforts, one of every three students who take trades classes in Nashwauk enter skilled trades careers. The school participates in a career pathways collaborative, with eight pathways across eight districts. It is Gabardi’s goal to bridge the labor shortage gap, connect businesses with the future workforce, and remove unknowns and doubts from his students’ minds before they begin their careers. In his manufacturing pathway over the last three years, 75% of students have stayed in the trades. A number of Gabardi’s students participate in the Harbor Freight Fellows Initiative with Big Picture Learning, where high school students are connected to industry mentors and paid internships in the trades.

His former students, who have spoken to the Lieutenant Governor, state legislatures, area superintendents, and administrators, often share that their career success began with the real-life experiences they had in high school. His students’ success motivates Gabardi to continue building pathways to skilled trades careers and inspiring his students to pursue their goals.

Gabardi was previously a finalist for the 2022 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. He also is the first ever winner from Minnesota.

“Once a student feels safe and comfortable, they are willing to work, learn, and step out of their comfort zone. When you have students willing to do that, you can teach them without them even knowing they are learning.”