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2015 December 2 - 12:38 am

Carrying A Torch

Federal Spending Fuels Growth in College Welding Programs

 

When Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio opined during a GOP debate that America needed more welders and fewer philosophers, his remarks soon got torched.

Fact checkers swiftly reported that Rubio was wrong to assert that welders earn more than do philosophy professors. Observers questioned his broader contention that the economic value of a vocational degree was greater than the payoff that comes with contemplating the great questions of life and love. Philosophy professors lamented that the humanities in general were under attack, not only their discipline, with some colleges shuttering their philosophy departments.

But absent from the debate was the fact that the country is poised to produce welders in large numbers. Welding technology programs, equipped with state-of-theart technological tools, are sprouting up on campuses around the country. Rubio might have lamented a shortage of welders — “we need more welders and less philosophers,” he said — but community colleges are striving to fill the gap.

Funded by grants from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Program — which has disbursed $2 billion in job training funds since 2010 — colleges around the country are starting and updating welding technology programs. They are trying to meet a large and growing need; the American Welding Society estimates that the country will face a shortage of 374,000 welders by the year 2024.

TAACCCT is a federal initiative that seeks to expand occupationally focused training partnerships between community colleges and employers. The TAACCCT grant program provides eligible colleges with funds to improve and expand upon two-year education and career training programs that prepare unemployed, eligible workers for occupations paying higher wages and requiring a higher skill levels.

In September 2014, the fourth and final round of the TAACCCT grant program awarded $450 million in job-focused training grants to almost 270 community colleges in the United States.

Among the grant recipients was a consortium of three community colleges in Pennsylvania, led by Northampton Community College, located in the state’s Lehigh Valley. The consortium received a $10 million grant to focus on training students for careers in healthcare, transportation and logistics and advanced manufacturing.

Northampton used part of its grant to refurbish and redesign its Eugene R. Hartzell Center for Advanced Technology. College President Mark Erickson marked the rededication of the facility with an unusual and headline-grabbing ribbon cutting: he sliced through a specially designed aluminum “ribbon” bearing the college’s logo with a welding torch firing a 30,000- degree stream of plasma.

“It was a little unconventional, but it captured the moment,” Erickson said. “We have really been plugged in to what is going on in our community and identifying their needs. The college has been talking for a long time about updating our equipment to meet those needs.”

With the new equipment and new welding and metallurgy labs in the technology center, the college has launched a new welding career pathway. It offers a specialized diploma in welding fundamentals, which can be earned in as little as two semesters, a certificate program in welding and fabrication and an associate degree in welding technology.

The career pathways offer a series of stackable credentials giving students multiple exit and entry points along their educational path, said Christopher Gaylo, the college’s director of industrial technologies.

“Students can earn a diploma, and then go get a job,” he said. “They can work for a couple of years, and come back and pick up exactly where they left off. They can go on and earn an associate degree and the go for a bachelor’s degree, if that is their choice. We are trying to make it as easy as possible to move in and out of the institution.”

The demand for welders is growing. It has wide applications. Anything made of metal, no matter how big or small, can be welded. Examples abound, from cars and trucks to ships, aircraft, rockets and space stations. Welding is central to the construction of bridges, highways, oil and naturalgas pipelines, offshore oil platforms, giant wind turbines and solar panels. Welders help install and maintain boilers, antipollution systems and other large structures, as well as piping for industrial, commercial and residential facilities. Welding is used by artists to create sculptures and decorative items.

Gaylo said Northampton welding graduates have little trouble finding a job.

“Virtually everyone coming out of the welding program gets a job,” he said. “There is a big skills gap.”

Yet the college knows that the skills of welders and other workers must be constantly updated. Welding is an increasingly high-tech skill. Welders are being trained to operate robots and other automated systems that use lasers, electron beams and sometimes explosives to bond metals. The ability to work with computers and program software is vital to the successful operation of these systems. It’s almost like white-coat lab work, Gaylo said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says on its website: “Overall job prospects will vary with the worker’s skill level. Job prospects should be good for welders trained in the latest technologies. Welding schools report that graduates have little difficulty finding work, and many employers report difficulty finding properly skilled welders. However, welders who do not have up-to-date training may face strong competition for jobs.”

Combining technical skills with higherlevel critical thinking is Erickson’s sweet spot. In 2012, he left the presidency of Wittenberg University, a small private liberal arts college in Ohio, to become head of NCC, a public community college with about 10,000 students.

“I have lived in both worlds,” Erickson said. “We want our students to have those technical skills, but also to be able to think critically. There are strong liberal components to these technical programs.”

The college’s efforts are paying dividends. Interest in its technical programs is high. Erickson’s attention-grabbing ribbon cutting has elicited phone calls from around the country. Enrollment has experienced steady growth, while the college’s overall enrollment has been flat.

Yet the college knows that more challenges await as technology evolves and employers demand new skills.

“The equipment that we have now is state-of-the-art,” Gaylo said. “There is nothing newer, nothing more up-to-date. We feel like we are at the forefront. But the forefront keeps moving.”

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