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Local community colleges strive to meet welder demand

p3-lccc    There is an insatiable demand for welders and two local community colleges are working to increase the supply. The American Welding Society estimates that more than 300,000 welders will be needed over the next 10 years.
     “As is the case with most of the skilled trades, there are a large number of those tradespeople who are aging and getting close to retirement,” said Monica Pfarr, workforce development director at the AWS. “As they retire and move out of the workforce, there’s going to be a huge void so we are trying to recruit and encourage young people to consider careers in the trades and specifically welding.”
    Pfarr said that she works with students, schools and school counselors to open their eyes to a career in welding but it can be a difficult sell.
     “School counselors largely counsel students on going on for a bachelor’s degree and getting a job,” she said. “We’re trying to get counselors to realize that not every student needs to get a four-year degree and certainly a lot of kids are not cut out for or have a goal of a four year degree. There are other very good career opportunities. There are jobs that pay well that offer advancement for students to pursue a two-year degree or specialized training in the trades.”
    One way the AWS promotes careers in welding is with its mobile exhibit. It’s a 53-foot trailer that travels the country about 20 weeks a year exhibiting at state fairs, agriculture shows and other student focused events.  The trailer offers the opportunity for the general public to come on board and learn more about careers available in the welding industry and to try their hand at virtual reality welding.  
     “For kids, it’s more like a video game,” Pfarr said. “They wear a video helmet so, when they pick up a torch, strike the arc and weld, it looks like they’re welding but they’re actually not doing anything because it’s all in virtual reality. It’s a cool way to expose people to welding.”
    The AWS also partners with national celebrities like Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel series, “Dirty Jobs.”
    While there is no welders union, welders work in a variety of settings including plumbing, pipefitting, iron working, barge and ship building and manufacturing.
    It is possible to be employable as a welder after just a few short courses, but Pfarr cautions against that.
     “You have to be careful,” Pfarr said. “If you go to a very short-term program — like a 10-week program — you’re going to come out employable but not very marketable. There are literally hundreds of certifications you can get for various types of welding.  As a young person or someone looking for a job, if you research who in your local area hires welders, what kind of welding process they use and what kind of materials they weld on, then you could tailor your training to the market and be able to get a job in a very short period of time.”
    Welders are in strong demand in Southwestern Illinois and Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey is planning a new building so that it can expand its welding program. Construction on the $4.2 million, 13,870-square-foot building is scheduled to begin in early 2015 and be completed and ready for use by September 2015. Dale Chapman, LCCC’s president, credits local philanthropy for getting the ball rolling.
     “Like in most large-scale projects there’s a combination of influences that led us to where we are today,” Chapman said. “The first one is that there is a wonderful area resident, Ed Weber who lived in Hartford and was a laborer all of his life. He died last year and his estate bequeathed about $2.3 million to Lewis and Clark to create a workforce center for generations to come that would be involved in the trades.”  
    Additional funding for the building is coming from a $23.8 million U.S. Department of Labor grant. The grant was awarded in September 2013 to the Mississippi River Transportation, Distribution and Logistics Consortium which is made up of nine community colleges in eight states along the Mississippi River.
    CCC leads the group and received $4.9 million as its share. The grant is part of a $2 billion initiative by the U.S. Department of Labor to expand targeted training programs for unemployed workers.
    With the help of another family donation, LCCC has purchased a truck that will be fitted for mobile welding to teach students how to weld away from the shop.
    While the new building is being erected, welding classes will continue on a three shift basis. The idea, said Chapman, is to keep the welding program up and running during construction and simply expand into the new space when it becomes available.
    Southwestern Illinois College offers welding classes at three of its campuses: Belleville, Granite City and East St. Louis. SWIC’s welding program offers four stackable certificates.  
     “A student can take three classes and earn a welding certificate,” said Brad Sparks, SWIC’s dean of technical education. “Some folks will earn that first certificate, which you can do in a couple of months, and they’ll go out and go to work. They’re limited on the types of jobs they can get if they only have that skill set — probably repair work and those kinds of things.”  
    The basic Welding Technology Certificate requires three classes that can all be taken in one semester. The second one is the Welding Technology Advanced Certificate which means the student has completed an advanced blueprint reading class, an advanced art welding class, and then a MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding class. A third level in which students learn to weld pipe, test and inspect welds and how to do layouts and fit ups of various components to be welded, provides the student with a specialized certificate. And, SWIC offers a fourth certificate in welding automation and robotic welding.  
    Sparks said that SWIC offers classes during both days and evenings. Some are offered on Saturdays. SWIC also offers dual credit classes at some of the local high schools in which students can earn college credits while taking high school welding classes.
     “We have a diversity of students,” Sparks said. “We have students that are older, returning adults. We have students right out of high school. We provide training for local labor unions. And, if a company wants some of their employees trained in a specific operation, we’ll design a training program for them and have their employees come in and learn that.”

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