About 60 years ago, a young man who grew up poor on the Red Lake Reservation revolutionized snowmobile design. While working at Polaris, Andy Wells — then just 20 years old — came up with a design to move the engine from the back of the sled to the front.
“It just made sense,” he said
Polaris immortalized Wells’ achievement by naming the snowmobile after him — the Lil Andy.
He could have had a big career with the company. Polaris management encouraged Wells to go back to school and return when he was finished.
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But Wells had other plans.
He left, first to become a teacher for a couple of decades, and then to start his own multimillion dollar business. Later Wells combined his two biggest passions — engineering and helping others — to create a free apprenticeship program for anyone who's Indigenous.
Making a difference
Before joining Wells Academy in Bemidji, Red Laker Lisa Butcher lost her job. Today she's operating one of the most sophisticated precision machines in the world that is worth millions and making high-end components. She's been with the program about a year.
“I have a love for learning and whenever I can prove myself to do something better than what I even thought I could do I'm there, I'm doing it, this has just been the perfect job for me,” Butcher said. “I needed something to support my family and it did that.”
Beltrami County in northwest Minnesota is the second poorest county in the state. It’s county seat — Bemidji — sits between three reservations. Growing up on Red Lake, Wells said he had help when he was young.
“That's why I was able to go forward. Some of them didn't. And some of them had failed in the public systems. And they needed a second chance, I realized that I had the ability to maybe help at least a few of them,” he said.
Wells Technology focused on making tools. By 2008, it had outgrown its humble two-stall garage where it started, to include 32 employees and $54 million in revenue. But early on, Wells noticed a growing problem.
“We were getting a lot of applicants coming to our door, looking for work. And they really weren't qualified. They had dropped out of high school, and they didn't have any industrial skills,” Wells said. “A lot of them didn't even have transportation, they were riding with a friend or someone they knew. And it was a really difficult challenge.”
Wells called them “employment-challenged applicants” and felt the hiring process was unfair to them.
“In a competitive world, they had been turned down by other possible opportunities. And I kept feeling that maybe I could do something if I could see desire. And if I could see that they were trustworthy. Maybe I could do something about it,” Wells recalled. “And I began teaching them one by one.”
Word gets out
Wells’ mission worked — really well. Initially the company was only able to train one or two people a year, and Wells says it was expensive. But word got out.
“Other corporations liked what we were doing. And they said they would be willing to actually give us a small grant,” he said. “It was something that we had to do. We were training only one or two a year and with the help from some of the other corporations we were able to double that.”
He used the money to create the nonprofit Wells Academy and soon began training up to five workers a year. He said it works for everyone, including the financial supporters. “They can help humanity plus get some future employees,” he said. “So, we're trying to be a model.”
Opening in Red Lake
And then things went one step further: In November 2020, after years of dialogue with Red Lake Nation, Wells Academy opened an apprenticeship program on the reservation at the Oshkiimaajitahdah community center in Redby. Wells supplied the equipment needed to increase accessibility for those living on the reservation.
The center's executive director, Jerry Loud, said he admires Wells Technology because it doesn't give up on people regardless of their past.
"Where other employers won't even take a look at them. Andy will take them on and give them a second chance. And that's really our mission here at Oshkiimaajitahdah is getting people on a new path, a new journey, because we all made mistakes, right?" said Loud. “We've been fronting part of it; Andy’s been fronting part of it. But now we need partners to continue on and to grow this. So that's really what I would like to see.”
More than just a certificate
Assistant executive director Eugene Standing Cloud said the program is about more than just a certificate.
“It's getting these individuals to understand that they can accomplish pretty much anything, getting them the confidence, getting them the organizational skills to show up every day, participate, ask questions, learn a new skill, a new career. And I think that's, that's really a huge goal,” Standing Cloud said.
In Redby, students learn how to manufacture fasteners commonly found on medical equipment. Robert Altaha, 23, said he heard about the program from his sister. Before that he was doing child care.
“I just decided to change my life. I got bored sitting at home doing nothing. Because sitting there with kids all day can get tiring and exhausting,” Altaha said. “I was sitting there with like, eight kids a day. And it would drive you crazy at times. But I had to figure something out, to do something new.”
So far three classes of three students per class have finished the program at Oshkiimaajitahdah. From there, students transfer to the Bemidji location for the final 12-month training. Wells Academy has graduated a total of 105 students since it opened.
After the program is complete Wells will either hire the graduates or help them find work at a different company — even if it’s a competitor. He said the metric for success is job placement.
“I think that it just keeps the whole thing more fair. So it doesn't look like we're doing this just for us. We're really not,” Wells said. “I do it because it was my time in life to give back."
‘Making life better for others’
One of the people Wells has helped is Leech Laker Logan Cloud. He’s the oldest of four boys. Cloud said his parents are in their 70s and are experiencing medical issues just as his brothers are transitioning into adulthood. Graduating from Wells Academy has given him the ability to support his family’s needs.
“That's something that really needs to be looked for in Native Country, is that understanding of a family dynamic, that we're not a 9-to-5 family, that whole dynamic is foreign to us,” Cloud said. “We're a unit, we’re a lodge, we're not a picket fence with all that other crazy stuff that you see on TV, our family is completely different.”
Wells says the Red Lake funding is geared toward Indigenous prospects, but the apprentice program at Wells Academy in Bemidji is open to all. And that's the model he's trying to encourage businesses across the U.S. to take up. He says it's an approach that can help fight poverty while strengthening community.
“My motivation every day is to get up and make life better for other people. I think it's a very satisfying thing. It's a joyful thing to see that you've done something that makes other people's life a little better,” Wells said. “It's different than pleasure. Pleasure is kind of a central thing. You can take a boat ride or an airplane ride or go see a movie or something like that. That's just temporary pleasure, but happiness and joy are found in the heart.”