School choice

The much discussed exodus of retirees leaving their jobs in manufacturing with no one to replace them fuels the skills gap fire. Fortunately, welding schools and other outlets are stepping up to ease that gap and add an integral knowledge base to the foundation on which skills can be developed.

The Tulsa Welding School has a 60-year history, training more than 20,000 students.

Gaining welding experience can be found through a variety of resources – from a high school shop class to a vocational school or community college. Welding education can also come from welding programs hosted by some of the biggest names in the industry, such as The Lincoln Electric Co. And don’t forget apprenticeships. Those are available, too, for folks looking for a chance to learn how to weld, and in turn, land a long and good-paying career.

The vocational route

Brandon Milligan, chief operating officer with the StrataTech Education Group at the Tulsa School of Welding (TWS), is all too familiar with the need for welders.

“The demand for well-trained, skilled welders is high,” Milligan begins, “with estimates from the AWS showing a shortage of 290,000 welders by 2020.”

That statistic is apparently reaching graduating high school students who Milligan says recognize the opportunity to begin a potentially lucrative career. Rather than going to a two- or four-year university, they can attend a school like TWS and after seven months of welding training, be prepared for a career.

“We have more than 20 high school admissions representatives that visit high schools around the country to talk to young students about careers in welding,” he says. “TWS strives to give students as much information and exposure through innovative tools like the TWS 360 Virtual Reality Video and #TWS Proud Magazine.”

Although some high school students might not have much familiarity with TWS, the industry as a whole certainly does. The school touts a record of training more than 20,000 students over the course of its 60-year history and is also the largest welding school in the country. Students prepare for sustainable skilled trades careers at its campuses in Tulsa, Okla., Jacksonville, Fla., and Houston.

Classes begin every three to six weeks with anywhere from 80 to 110 students starting each new cycle.

“Our students begin welding on the second day of class,” Milligan says. “They receive a hands-on education with a strong emphasis on technical competencies and skills designed to meet employers’ needs.”

Like many welding trade schools, TWS offers various scholarships and financial aid opportunities for eligible students as well as benefits for eligible military members and dependents to further incentivize young talent to enter a career in the trades.

“Attendance of young students at TWS has actually grown over recent years,” Milligan says.

The same can be said for women taking interest in the field. At TWS, around 7 percent of the total welding student population is female. To support that growing demographic, the school created the Women in Trades Scholarship. The program has already awarded a half million dollars in scholarships.

Great demand for welding training began during World War I. Lincoln Electric responded by opening a welding school, which carries on the tradition today.

It goes without saying, of course, that TWS isn’t the only vocational school out there. Every U.S. state hosts several schools that provide a welding education. In Illinois, for example, schools are scattered throughout the state.

Before enrolling, however, check to make sure that the school has been accredited. Accreditation can definitely be a plus when interviewing for potential welding jobs. As an example, ETI School of Skilled Trades, a welding school just outside of Chicago, is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and is a member of the American Welding Society and the Better Business Bureau, just to name a few.

It takes a community

Unfortunately, not everybody lives near an accredited welding trade school, which opens up the field to community colleges. Community colleges serve as an excellent choice for students who want to learn about the welding trade, either for management roles or for actually taking the torch in hand to learn how to lay down a proper weld.

And because of the high demand for welders around the nation, it makes sense that individual states are making investments toward educating a new workforce.

For example, Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Neb., recently made a $10.5 million investment to renovate its Industrial Training Center. The school’s present welding room is cramped as welding programs are in operation seven days a week. The money will enlarge and improve that space.

Like Metro Community College, which is accommodating students over the weekends, Wallace Community College in Dothan, Ala., recently opened its welding courses to people who want to come in on Saturdays and Sundays, as well. Students at the school learn a variety of welding processes, including stick welding, oxyfuel cutting, MIG and TIG welding, and other applicable processes.

Even for community colleges that can’t open their doors over the weekend, John Hindman, director of learning and performance improvement at Tooling U-SME says they’re a great resource for future welding professionals, providing them with theory-based learning opportunities about the trade. That, of course, is in addition to getting hands-on experience.

“ A lot of good things are happening within community colleges to prepare students for these careers,” Hindmand says.

One of those “goods things” is related to affordability. According to College Board, a not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity, public two-year colleges have a yearly tuition with fees averaging about $3,440. Four-year colleges, on the other hand, have yearly tuition and fees averaging $9,410. And compared to the cost of attending a vocational school that might not be in a student’s local area, in-state tuition at a community college can be quite affordable.

Lincoln Electric’s Welding Technology & Training Center held its grand opening in March of this year. It’s a 130,000-sq.-ft. center located in Cleveland.

While cost is a big consideration, students with an interest in entering the welding trade have little use for hours of liberal education study. Rather, they can come out of the school in two short years with a tight focus on what will prepare them for a career in welding.

One-year certificate programs are also available at many community colleges that have an even tighter focus on welding.

Take Grand Rapids Community College as an example. The school offers a one-year certificate degree program where students learn about oxyfuel, arc welding and inert gas-shielded techniques. With one of the largest welding facilities in the Midwest, the school’s graduates have gone on to careers in aerospace, piping and boiler work, construction and restoration welding industries. Students are given the opportunity to bypass courses by passing challenge exams, which can shorten the already fast path to a career.

The West Coast is not without its share of community colleges offering welding instruction, including Central Oregon Community College’s one-year welding certificate. The program is specifically geared for students looking for a technician-level career in welding in a manufacturing environment.

The Oregon school’s program includes 45 credits of instruction in stick, MIG and TIG welding. Courses in oxyfuel, plasma and flux-cored processes are also available. AWS, API and ASME welding certificates can be obtained through the program.

On the other side of the country, Jamestown Community College in western New York offers a welding technology certificate that includes coursework as well as hands-on experience in high technology welding. Classes include safety and cutting processes, stick, MIG, TIG and advanced courses in each of these welding processes.

As is true with vocational schools, potential students should check that the community college that they are considering offers an accredited program. A certificate or degree from an accredited institution will make landing a job much easier.   

Apt apprentice

Working alongside a seasoned professional is an excellent way to learn how to weld, and it’s something apprenticeship programs bring to the table. In some cases, these programs are available to high school students.

The state of Missouri launched a “Registered Youth Apprenticeship” program in 2018 that connects students as young as sophomores with apprenticeships in skilled trades, including welding. Students maintain normal academic studies, but also partner with local businesses and industry leaders for hands-on learning experiences.

For those who have already exited high school and don’t have state-sponsored programs to assist them, a number of apprenticeship programs are available throughout the United States – at a variety of manufacturing and fabricating companies.

A quick scan through SimplyHired proves that there is an obvious need for welding professionals, as apprenticeship opportunities are plentiful. Some require the welder to be actively involved in a certified apprenticeship course or taking welding classes at a local college or trade school.

100 years of education

As if the options weren’t already vast, Lincoln Electric also has an educational program in place with a fairly wide scope. And, it touches on some of the topics Tooling U-SME is invested in. In fact, Tooling U-SME and the welding giant have teamed up on several programs, including an online content and educational program.

Lincoln Electric also has a brick-and-mortar school of its own – the Lincoln Electric Welding School, which was established in 1917. Its instructors are responsible for training roughly 250,000 men and women over the past century on the techniques, practices and theory of arc welding.

Lincoln Electric’s dedication to expanding its education program is evident in its 130,000-sq.-ft. Welding Technology & Training Center in Cleveland. While Lincoln’s school takes around 150 young students each year, its approach is focused on professional development of the welding industry as a whole.

The school and its philosophy fit a niche market where welding educators can go for professional development, welders can attend to enhance their skills and engineers can attend to learn about welding design, new technologies, productivity and quality.

“We also engage in community colleges, trade schools and skilled trade unions – all of them,” says Jason Scales, business manager for Lincoln’s education program. “We help them with their facility needs and getting them prepared for the future while also assisting with their curriculum and developing and training their trainers.”

With around 40 people dedicated to education programs at Lincoln, industry professionals from on-the-floor welders to design engineers have a variety of programs and options, some of which are only a day or two long to others, such as a comprehensive skills class that spans 20 consecutive weeks.

Scales notes the focus is on more than just developing skills, which is important because as retirees leave the welding trade, they’re taking with them decades of experience that won’t be passed on to new workers.

“Typically,” Scales says of new workers, “there was somebody there to work with them, shepherd them and take them under their wing to teach them on-the-job skills and the why and the how.”

It’s the “why and the how” that is important to Scales and Greg Coleman, who works in marketing communications for Lincoln. The education programs go beyond the skills part of the training and address the knowledge gap.

“In addition to learning the technique of welding,” Coleman begins, “the emphasis is on the science of the welding and the knowledge associated with it. So many of the students – guys who have been in the industry for 10 or 20 years or even instructors in the industry – come to take a one-week class and their eyes are

opened up to the metallurgy behind the technique.”

Scales says they are challenged in making sure students understand the science behind what they’re doing, especially as new technologies are put in place, including those involving robotic welding.

“Whoever programs and manages that robot has to truly understand the physics of that arc and how to make that weld perfectly,” Scales says. “The robot is only going to do what the robot is programmed to do. Whoever is programing or operating that robot is going to have to manage it, and the only way that can happen is if they fully understand welding processes, how they’re applied and how they work.”

Lincoln’s educational outreach might be largely focused on continuing education, but the company has a history planting seeds in youth who might later consider a career in manufacturing. For example, Lincoln, along with the AWS, played a role in developing the Boy Scout Welding Merit Badge, which more than 40,000 scouts have earned since it was introduced around six years ago.

“We actually put together a network of community colleges and skilled trades to remove barriers to get that badge,” Scales says, adding that they also helped train the Boy Scout merit badge counselors and some scouts on how to weld. “We have had a sponsor relationship with the Future Farmers of America for 70 years, and we also work with 4-H. We are the exclusive welding partner of WorldSkills and also work closely with SkillsUSA.”

Lincoln launched its education website last September. Click here to check it out.

Whether a teenager looking for opportunities to learn how to weld or a person who wants to switch careers after decades in a different industry, there are many opportunities to learn the skills necessary for a career in welding. Even for welders who have been in the trade for many years, the learning never really ends – especially given the technological advancements that are constantly coming into the market.

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