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Welding: From Trade to Career - Portraits of Success

By Brad F. Kuvin
An aging work force combined with a growing economy means our nation will need 20 million additional workers over the next 25 years, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Where are all of these workers going to come from, particularly those needed within the skilled trades, where the labor shortage already plagues our nationıs manufacturing plants? Already we see repeated calls for labor falling on deaf ears, as signs and advertisements for laborers hang for weeks or months before job openings are filled. Many manufacturers find themselves limited not by the traditional productivity constraints of shop size and capital equipment but by the severe shortages in the labor force. Possible solutions lie in productivity improvements such as automation or overtime ‹ any way to obtain more production out of the current labor pool. But this will not propel the U.S. manufacturing base much further for much longer. This country, specifically its teachers and counselors, must focus more energy on making sure more young men and women not particularly interested in working in traditional white-collar careers find a home and career in the skilled trades.

Traditional skilled-labor roles such as machining and welding suffer from an image problem ‹ dirty, dangerous, smoky, oily, hot, you name it. While this image might have been somewhat true at one time, for several years now, suppliers of welding and machining equipment have made significant strides in improving the working conditions for these skilled trades people. Todayıs manufacturing shops are a far cry from those of 10 or 20 years ago. Fume exhausters and air cleaners are now standard in every shop. Developments in ergonomics help ensure the long-term careers of welders and other trades people.

In short, well paying and rewarding jobs for skilled laborers abound. Working environments are clean and safe, and the tools available are ergonomically optimized, in some cases computerized. Further, skilled laborers need not be limited in their hopes and dreams; the practical knowledge base they develop, coupled with the drive to continue to learn and succeed, often leads to upward economic mobility. Many welders, for example, move on to become shop foremen, maintenance engineers, robot operators or programmers, degreed welding engineers and instructors or teachers.

The Kids Are There, but the Guidance Is Missing

This is a story of three young men who have much to say about what motivates young people, particularly those not inclined to attend a university, to strive for something more than a minimum-wage job at the local supermarket or gas station. It's a tale that begins in their teenage years, one that centers on parental support and, perhaps more importantly, guidance from a shop teacher - the most likely role model to many young people. And it's a success story with many happy endings and new beginnings. For the young men youıll meet here all saw somewhat dim futures just a few years ago. Yet, with the encouragement of some key people in their lives, coupled with the knowledge and understanding of the tremendous opportunities awaiting people who enter the trades, they've all achieved success beyond their imagination. To top it off, these young men have really only begun their climb up the ladder.

Most young people in high school, whether theyıre achieving good grades or not, truly want to do well. Those that donıt succeed in university-prep courses such as history or social study classes, but do show some level of skill in shop classes, want and deserve the same level of respect as that offered to the book-smart kids.

These words of wisdom come from Nick Peterson, once a visionless high school student earning C and D grades, today a degreed welding engineer working for Miller Electric Mfg. Co., a welding-equipment manufacturer. When Nick entered Dakota County Secondary Technical Center in the Minneapolis-St. Paul (Minn.) area for his 11th and 12th grade years, he met the man who would change his life: shop instructor Gary Wallerich. Peterson said, "Mr. Wallerich encouraged me to strive for the top. Just fulfilling classroom obligations was not enough; he insisted I compete in something called SkillsUSA-VICA competitions.

"I thought competition was for football players," continued Peterson, "not welders. But Mr. Wallerich said if I wanted an A, I had to compete." The result of this newly found competitiveness: Petersonıs grades suddenly rose to As and Bs. He even received an academic letter in high school for achieving two trimesters of straight As. And, he won the state SkillsUSA-VICA, going on to become one of the best welders in the world by participating in the World Skills Competition in 1993.

Today, as a district manager for Miller, Peterson works with a number of welding equipment distributors and manufacturing plants, helping them develop more efficient and productive welding procedures. "The best part of my job," shared Peterson, "is the diversity it offers. One day I'm in a mine, the next an aerospace facility. There's always a new challenge. As a welder, I loved seeing my work after it was complete, taking pride in building something, in a job well done."

Coupling Skills with Desire

This is about more than just becoming a good welder. It's about focusing talent and energy, and building a desire to succeed. And for this, Nick Peterson owes Gary Wallerich his gratitude. "Participating in the skills competition opened my eyes to an array of opportunities," shared Peterson. "I urge shop instructors today to educate their students about the opportunities that await them in the real world. I feel so lucky to have experienced that in high school.

If I could offer one piece of advice," adds Peterson, "it would be for instructors to not just pass kids through shop class for the purpose of moving them along. Pay attention to the kids; many of them just want respect and guidance. Unfortunately, it seems that too many guidance counselors donıt have time for kids who are not headed for a university," Peterson continued. "This is where shop teachers can step in and become mentors. Ask your students for optimum effort, make them strive for the next level. And show them there are rewards for their efforts."

Twenty-six-year-old Branden Muehlbrandt, also a less-than-stellar high school student who used welding skills as a springboard to a career in welding, echoed Peterson's sentiments. Muehlbrandt, now a welding instructor for the Hobart Institute of Welding in Troy, Ohio, also credits his shop instructor for driving him to succeed. During his sophomore year of high school, he was pushed to compete in the SkillsUSA-VICA program. And, like Nick Peterson, he shied away from competition. "While my guidance counselors did very little to encourage or support me, my shop teacher, John Stiles, really showed an interest. Not only was John a great instructor, he was my friend. In fact, he even helped me with my other coursework in school, always making sure I stayed motivated."

Participating in the SkillsUSA-VICA competition in Saint Petersburg, Florida, Muehlbrandt won a gold medal at the regional level and a silver medal in state competition. From there he went to work in a metal-fabrication shop and, at the suggestion of stiles, attended night classes at a vocational-technical school four nights a week. At school, he was exposed to a variety of people, from entry-level trades people to experienced welders looking to further their careers. "That was a great opportunity for me to learn more about the career choices I had. It truly motivated me to continue to advance and learn."

Muehlbrandt moved on to compete for a second time in the SkillsUSA-VICA program. This time, with an expanded range of skills, he not only brought home gold medals in regional, state and national events but also earned a chance to represent the United States in international competition in Lyon, France, in 1995.

Intensive Training Regimen

To train for the competition, Muehlbrandt recalls the emphasis placed on safety during a week-long course at Smith Equipment on oxyfuel cutting and welding. From there he moved on to Allied Signal for two weeks of training in gas tungsten arc welding. "This aircraft-welding work," he recalled, "emphasized the importance of precision and cleanliness."

Next was a six-week visit to The Lincoln Electric Mfg. Co., where he honed his skills in structural welding. "An important part of my practice routines at Lincoln," offered Muehlbrandt, "involved working on open-root passes on 3/8-in.-thick plate." After the stay at Lincoln, the training regimen concluded with an eight-week session at Miller Electric Mfg. Co., "the main focus of which," recalled Muehlbrandt, "was on pressure vessel welding."

A Little Push Goes a Long Way

"None of my accomplishments in welding would have been possible without the push I received from my instructors," stressed Muehlbrandt. "Competition forced me to enhance my skills and increase my knowledge of the trade. It opened many doors for me."

Whether or not instructors choose to become involved with SkillsUSA-VICA, they should encourage competition in their classes. Challenge kids in shop class just as they are challenged to learn in other classes. These young men and women want to learn; they want to succeed. Instructors should build shop programs that promote and feed this desire. Says Muehlbrandt, "If kids aren't given an understanding of what the world holds for them, and if theyıre not pushed to prepare themselves for life, there's no way for them to know what they can become. No one else in the school is going to pay attention to them."

Today, Muehlbrandt feels compelled to give back what was given to him, electing to join Hobart Institute as an instructor. Nick Peterson feels the same need to return the favor he was given. He serves on the national SkillsUSA-VICA welding technical committee and speaks to kids at career days.

Become Involved with SkillsUSA-VICA

Teachers and school administrators, 15,000 strong, serve as members and instructors to SkillsUSA-VICA, a national organization. Its mission: To build and reinforce self-confidence and strong work attitudes among those enrolled in training programs in technical, skilled and service organizations. Local, state and national competitions give students the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. The national SkillsUSA Championships host thousands of contestants in 68 separate events.

In the welding arena, each competitor receives a set of part drawings and Welding Procedure Specifications (WPS). They're tested on their ability to use weld-measuring gauges; cut using the oxyfuel and plasma-arc processes; and weld with a variety of processes, filler metals and in a variety of positions. National Medal winners earn a chance to compete for a $40,000 scholarship and a place in the World Skills Competition. Thatıs the honor and prestige gained by both Nick Peterson and Branden Muehlbrandt, following in the footsteps of the first U.S. welder to take home international gold, in 1991: Robert Pope.

Pope, like Branden Muehlbrandt, attended Dixie Hollins High School in Saint Petersburg, Fla., and received the much-appreciated guidance of instructor John Stiles. After high school, he attended Pinellas Technical Education Center, where, lo and behold, he learned at the hip of instructor Jerry Galyen, the same instructor Muehlbrandt learned from at Clearwater Vo-Tech.

Said Pope, "Jerry Galyen really honed my skills and pushed me to become the best welder I could be. Jerry convinced me that I could have a very lucrative career as a welder."

Sure enough, Pope has realized that vision. After winning the International Youth Skills Olympics in 1991, he went on to work in a handful of welding shops over a seven-year span. In 1995, while working as a welder for a medical-equipment manufacturer, Pope and two partners started their own precision-welding shop, Arc Dimensions, Inc., in Largo, Florida. Looking back on his Gold Medal days, Pope said, "Along with the medal came some personal awareness for which I am thankful. I realized that I could achieve anything that I set my mind to do. This awareness has set the pace for the rest of my life."

The Legacy Continues

On November 20, 1999, Ray Connolly, a welding student at Belleville Area College in Illinois, took home the Gold Medal for Welding at the World Youth Skills Competition in Montreal, Canada. He was one of 11 competitors from the United States, and one of two who earned gold medals.

Connolly is most assuredly on his way to bigger and better things, following the path blazed by Robert Pope, Branden Muehlbrandt and Nick Peterson. We can only hope there are many more of these motivated, ethical and confident hard-working people following this corridor to a financially successful career.

It's a path that must lengthen in order for the U.S. manufacturing base to continue to grow and prosper in the global marketplace. Attracting young people into the skilled trades, educating them about the opportunities theyıll find there and motivating them to strive for excellence must become the focus of our schools, educators and parents.

For more information on the fund-raising, marketing and other efforts of the Image of Welding Subcommittee, contact the American Welding Society, (800) 443-9353; or log on to www.aws.org and download the award-winning video Welding: So Cool Itıs Hot! To learn more about the SkillsUSA-VICA program log on to www.skillsusa.org.

Yet another important link from school to the skilled trades comes from the nonprofit organization National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), Inc. Formed in 1995, NIMS combines the efforts of industry organizations and companies with grants from states for technical assistance. It strives to promote and improve the quality of training provided to prepare students and trainees for successful careers in the metalworking industry. Twenty-four occupational areas and training levels have been targeted by NIMS, covering metalforming, machining, die making, machine building and maintenance. Learn more at www.nims-skills.org.

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