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Welding NEW connections


Outreach program to Latino community could help quell the welder shortage in region’s workforce

Story by Jeffrey Decker

Grants that pay for education are rare, and getting paid to learn is almost unheard of. But with manufacturing production stifled by a major welder shortage, a new initiative is finding students, paying for their training, and teaching more than connecting together pieces of metal.

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Hispanic Training initiative recruits students who otherwise may not consider welding as a career. Enrollees can see a $50,000 annual salary within easy reach if they can manage the life skills that separate hard workers from the unemployed.

Traditional technical college courses don’t focus on a student’s personal life, and two or four-year courses build the workforce of the future. Now, short-burst training aims for immediate change. It works. It’s a model that’s gaining support in Madison, and the state Department of Workforce Development awarded a $400,000 Fast Forward grant in May to pay for training.

The initiative’s total cost is more than $1 million, supported by a $400,000 grant from Illinois Tool Works – the parent company of Appleton-based Miller Electric Mfg Co. – and $220,000 from the Florida-based American Welding Society Foundation.

Feeding a hungry beast

American Welding Society Foundation estimates the nation will need 230,000 new welders by 2019. By 2016, vacant metal manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin is estimated to total 7,100, according to Manpower Inc. By 2021, the state will need 13,000 workers to reach full production capacity. Employers frown as experienced workers retire and only a small pool of qualified job candidates are ready to replace them.

Expanding that pool is the goal of a consortium of manufacturers, economic development and job-placement groups, as well as the Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, formed in early 2013 at the invitation of Miller Electric and captained by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. They’ve brainstormed how to meet the demand for 400 new welders right now in Milwaukee, Green Bay, the Fox Cities and Wausau areas.

“Through this year and into the start of next year we’ll have 240 individuals trained in essential life skills, and 120 of those trained in welding, in partnership with the technical colleges,” said Jorge Franco, CEO of the state’s Hispanic chamber.

As to why his office is taking the lead, “Frankly, there were employers who have had great success with the strong work ethic that’s found in the Hispanic community. More and more employers were calling us and asking us to send workers to them to help fill their vacancies,” Franco recalled. In October, the Hispanic chamber opened its first office in Green Bay.

The key is finding the unemployed and underemployed, what he calls “underutilized human capital,” and helping them step up into a new career.

“That’s the outreach,” Franco explained. “It’s very organized and substantial. Getting out in the community, even knocking on doors at times. We present in the faith community Sundays after church.”

It doesn’t hurt that the time-intensive training actually pays $10 per hour. Students have bills, and Franco would rather they earn money in the classroom than flipping burgers. It’s proven, he said, wherever someone works, he or she will go farther and achieve more if they have structured personal lives. Half of those recruited don’t make it to the welding training, and that depends on a variety of key indicators used as criteria.

“Did they show up on time? Are they team players? How’s their work attitude?” Half go home, but they still benefit from the life skills they just got paid to learn, and from other perks. “We actually provide a no-cost bank account to our trainees,” Franco said. “That helps reduce turnover on the job.

Another big challenge is finding affordable housing, to live “near where their new job is going to be.” The chamber helps in that regard, as well as with “affordable transportation solutions,” Franco said. “We negotiated with one of our partners, a network of auto dealerships, and we work to get students a $150 per month car payment.”

So much becomes possible with a higher salary. Franco said a student’s first job offers at least $15 per hour, and often it’s $18. That can quickly raise to $25 per hour and a total income of $50,000 per year. “You can usually be there in less than three years,” he said. “Pipe welders, in some cases, are earning more than $100,000 per year!”

Building the local economy

That’s a lot of money for one person, and a lot more being spent through the economy. Ed Panelli leads the global welding business of Illinois Tool Works, and said it’s not just manufacturers whose growth is stifled when there aren’t enough welders to meet demand.

“Assuming we have 13,000 job vacancies at $65,000 a year, at 5.5 percent state and local tax, and federal tax – in a 10-year job cycle there will be more than $1.4 billion of lost tax revenue.”

“Manufacturers will suffer billions of dollars in lost revenue during that same period,” Panelli said. “In Wisconsin it’s exacerbated because we are all about manufacturing. Wisconsin has more than 9,000 manufacturing firms, and 96 percent of those employ fewer than 250 workers.”

With so few workers and so many orders to fill, employers fiercely compete to lure skilled laborers away from each other. Panelli refers to it as “cannibalization.” That demand, and seeing welding as a high-tech field, can overcome the stigma manufacturing jobs can get from an earlier layoff.

“I’m certain when you were growing up your mother and father didn’t say, ‘You’re going to be a welder,’” Panelli joked.

He hopes they might today, and Miller Electric is building a foundation for future training. “We’ve made over $1 million worth of equipment available for that purpose,” Panelli added.

The legislature approved $15 million for demand-driven education models in its last budget, said Scott Jansen, administrator of the Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Employment and Training, and responsive strategies are quickly being eclipsed by pro-active training.

“There’s over $50 million in state funding to build skilled workers. That’s a tremendous difference from the way things were done in Wisconsin. It was typically through federal programs. Now we’re focusing on these demand-driven models.”

With the Hispanic Training Initiative proving itself, its supporters are already planning to expand and scale up.

Businesses are adapting, too. “What employers are getting better at doing is saying if students can get those initial competencies and credentials, when they get the hire they know it’s on them to develop those specialized skills,” Jansen said. Welding isn’t easy and it’s not the same everywhere.

“It varies by type of weld, speed of weld, gauge, are you in a horizontal or vertical position, or working aluminum…” Jansen explained. His office monitors demand for those specific skills and builds a database so employers can find the right worker as orders ebb and flow.

Building beyond basic skills

Employers do understand they aren’t hiring fully trained welders, said Dean Stewart, dean of corporate training and economic development at Green Bay-based Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “You aren’t getting a 2-year associate degree welder out of a six-week program,” he said.

Stewart oversees the instructors and program design, and said training must continue on the job. “In order to get a finished welder, it can’t stop with just this program.”

Some participants will continue learning English, as well. Finding new students is all up to the Hispanic chamber but by no means are all students of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. In Wausau the Hmong community is specifically targeted, but so are Caucasians and everyone else. Stewart said many students do need help learning English, and that’s worked into each day’s three-hour life skills session.

“It’s English language-learning as part of their job skills,” he noted.

Students at NWTC go through a six-week course, six hours a day, and six days a week, Stewart explained. They’ve already graduated two cohorts, one with 22 students and another with 14. The education makes a strong impact, Stewart related. As the first class graduated, students’ families looked on.

“One student’s wife and daughter were there and he broke down into tears and said, ‘I did this for you.’ It’s great to see the opportunities this is creating for them,” Stewart said. The second cohort was at the graduation, too, just as they were beginning their own training.

The initiative fills an urgent need, Stewart said, even as their traditional recruitment is “in overdrive.” Stewart said there’s a huge disconnect between the open positions and the available students. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to increase the amount of welding graduates in our programs. We have gone from graduating maybe 20 graduates a year out of the welding programs to almost 200, but that still isn’t satisfying the demand we see in the marketplace.”

At Fox Valley Technical College, welding training is underway at Appleton and Oshkosh campuses. Steve Straub, dean of manufacturing and agricultural technologies, said the second cohort of its Hispanic welder training initiative graduated in August.

“We started another cohort at the end of September and that cohort will finish up at the end of February,” he said, adding that this cohort is taking longer because it’s a night and weekend program. The search is on for the next two cohorts.

Students see four instructors during the course. “We would teach the blueprint reading and weld symbol class at the same time as we would teach the welding skills class,” said Straub. Class credits do apply for the central diploma and an associate’s degree from FVTC. Unlike the two-year program students, almost everything is paid for, including tuition and protective equipment. All students buy is their work boots.

Mark Jungwirth of Oshkosh graduated with FVTC’s second cohort this past August. He signed on after a chance encounter with an old friend on his way to an informational seminar. Now he’s welding tanker trucks at Brenner Tank in Fond du Lac.

“What it boils down to,” he said, “is if you can handle eight hours of school a day, if you have the ambition to put your nose to the grindstone and go through the program, you can certainly learn a lot and come out with all the skills needed to have a career in the welding field.” Two students in his cohort didn’t make it. “If you missed more than a day, you were automatically cut,” he recalled.

Creating tanker trucks is much more satisfying than working in a machine shop like he’d been doing for the previous 18 months. It’s hard work and Jungwirth loves it. “This is the first weekend in six weeks that I’ve had two days off in a row. I’ve been working 46 to 48 hours a week for six weeks,” Jungwirth said. “I have money now that I don’t even know what to do with. I’m going to be giving a lot of holiday gifts to a lot of people this year!”

Jeffrey Decker is a business journalist and father based in Oshkosh.