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Welders a crying need in state

Programs hope to sell students on careers in skilled trades by Glen Chase | November 24, 2014 at 2:15 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN --11/13/2014-- A welding student is lit by his torch while working on a project during a class at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock. The trade school program gets requestes from buisnesses from all over the mid-south looking for students who are ready to go to work.

Rickie Gunn's phone is busy these days.

The welding instructor at Black River Technical College in Pocahontas is fielding calls from employers around Arkansas and surrounding states. Not for himself, but for his students, although he could easily find another job doing what he teaches.

"You can make more money as a welder than you can with some four-year degrees," Gunn said.

As older workers retire or move to other jobs, employers are looking for skilled tradesmen to replace them. Welding is just one of many skilled trades for which demand is growing.

"Most people want a fabricator. That's somebody who can look at a blueprint and cut it and build it to print," Gunn said, adding he's trying to teach students to be as well-rounded as they can be.

But that doesn't mean programs such as Black River's can't respond to specific needs.

Many manufacturers require multiskilled people, according to Gina Zeigler, recruiting manager for Systems Contracting Corp. in El Dorado. Her company builds and maintains industrial and commercial facilities such as for mills owned by Nucor Steel, as well as facilities owned by Lion Oil Co. in El Dorado and FutureFuel Chemical Co. in Batesville, and other companies throughout the mid-South.

"Then you still have your construction trades where you're actually building the framework," Zeigler said. "You're putting together the piping. You're putting together runs of pipe. Well, there's no electrical boards with that. There's no computers. It is a hands-on, skilled craft."

That demand resulted in Systems Contracting teaming with Black River to ensure its newest workers got the specific skills needed for its business. Working with another Black River instructor, Keith Eddings, the company outlined its certification requirements and was able to hire 14 students to work on a recent steel mill shutdown in Blytheville. It also has ties to other schools, such as Southern Arkansas University Tech's Welding Academy in Magnolia, according to Zeigler.

Gunn isn't the only welding instructor fielding phone calls from people looking to hire students or wanting to ensure that certain skills are being taught.

In today's environment, direct ties between employers and technical schools are common and necessary, according to Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas.

" No. 1, there's a growing realization in the community college sector and the adult education sector that there is a need for these technical skills," Zook said. As a result, more instructors are being hired and resources are being made available. And, he said, the schools are making young people more aware of skilled programs and the potential to land a good-paying job.

Both Zook and the outgoing executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Grant Tennille, agree that there is a need for more emphasis on teaching skilled trades and less on preparing every student for a four-year college degree.

"It's a conundrum," said Tennille. The idea that not every high school graduate needs a four-year degree as long as they continue updating job skills needs wider acceptance, he said. "We've to to make sure that high-value educational opportunities are available to all our kids."

Tennille said that starts with getting parents to understand that a career in a skilled trade "is an opportunity for their kids to realize the American dream."

The Economic Development Commission offers several worker-training programs as part of incentive packages offered to businesses looking to locate or expand in Arkansas.

With the push in recent years toward four-year degrees, families have "largely forgotten" about the earnings potential for skilled trades in manufacturing and other industries, Tennille said. "The skill set required for these jobs demands that these jobs pay really well," he said.

Tennille and Zook said industries and businesses must be aggressive in developing strong ties with technical schools to ensure that workers are acquiring the skills they need.

The construction of the $1.3 billion Big River Steel project near Osceola is an example, Tennille said. The new mill, as well as the two Nucor Steel mills near Blytheville, is starting to attract support industries as well as companies that will use the steel being produced in Arkansas.

"But, if we don't have people with the skills they need, we won't be able to [create] more jobs," Tennille said.

Anne Tucker, education supervisor in the Arkansas Department of Career Education's Skilled and Technical Sciences Division, said there's "absolutely" a shortage of skilled welders in Arkansas.

The exact number of students taking welding classes at the various technical and postsecondary colleges around the state isn't being tracked, she said. And, hundreds of students also get some training at high schools.

"If they want to learn [a more advanced welding technique], we encourage them to go through postsecondary so they can get full measure of learning and not just a little bit here and there" that they might pick up on the job, Tucker said.

At Black River, Gunn said 18 students are enrolled in the two-semester welding program. But he said students in the college's maintenance program also must have welding skills, resulting in classes of up to 30 people.

The goal of state programs is to ensure that instructors are certified by the National Center for Construction Education and Research and that students at least go through the first level of center certification, which she said "prepares them elegantly for the workforce," with skills that include communication, construction math and drawings, the use of power and hand tools as well as material handling.

The center was created in 1996 by construction companies and educators to improve worker training by standardizing skills required for certification, according to its website.

"There's a lot [of students] coming out, but along with welding as a skill, the employers need welders as an employee," Tucker said. While a typical welding class has 12 to 15 students a semester, it takes time to teach the required skills, she said.

Zook and Tucker said skilled-trade programs need more state funding -- an issue that Zook expects the Legislature to take up when it meets in January.

"The career and technical centers have been existing off the same budget for the last 15 years," said Tucker. "And yet, all of the employers are going to the career and tech centers -- which, most of them are held on two-year college campuses -- and they're going to them saying we need people trained."

"That is clearly part of the problem."

Zook said the flat funding reflects the state' s general shift over the years away from the importance of skilled trades.

"We got way too focused on general studies and remedial education getting people ready to go to four-year colleges. That's important for about a fourth of the young people that come along," he said. "But for three-fourths of them, they need skills preparation for existing jobs."

Zook said the need is not just in manufacturing trades, but for other industries, such as general construction, transportation and health care.

"There's all kinds of really good job opportunities throughout the economy that do not -- and will not -- require a four-year baccalaureate degree but they do indeed require something beyond high school," Zook said.

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