Please note: This was published over a year ago. Phone numbers, email addresses and other information may have changed.
Training welders to meet skill shortage
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Lee DouglasA training program set to serve a Portland manufacturing firm is turning career opportunists into welders thanks to a partnership between PCC, the firm, and a Portland workforce developer. The project began in order to meet the needs of Gunderson, Inc., a local manufacturer of rail cars and marine barges, which employs roughly 1,200 people, 700 of those welders. A skill shortage among welders has been a hurdle for the company, even as opportunities in the field grow.Discovering a need"Having enough people to fill our positions has been an ongoing battle whenever we get busy," said Gary Baysinger, human resource supervisor for Gunderson. "We have a lot of people that apply and want to work at Gunderson but they just dont have the skills we need." With its eye on new training dollars available through the state, Gunderson began talks with Portland Community College. Efforts through Baysinger and PCC’s Customized and Workplace Training department helped secure a grant to absorb some costs. The state selected Worksystems, Inc. to manage grant money and at the Lents Center at Marshall High School, a program was established to begin training welders. Today, PCC instructor Kevin Longueil trains five welders every five weeks to meet Gunderson’s standards for hire."They’re our employees. We hire them as employees and their first assignment is to go out to the job training site at Marshall and learn how to weld and then we put them to work," Baysinger said.Employees must pass a skills test to begin shifts at Gunderson. Everyone the company hires must meet manufacturing standards set by the Association of American Railroads. However PCC also certifies the welders, giving the trainees added tools to shape their careers.Getting to workRich Holly, 27, took three years of welding in high school enjoyed it enough to attend trade school. But in his home state of Ohio, Holly said it was difficult to break into the welding trade and he took work in other industries. After moving to Portland, Holly applied to the Gunderson program and became one of the first five welders hired on. "Gunderson has opened the door for anybody that wants to weld," he said.Though starting pay can’t compete with his most recent warehouse job, Holly said welding holds more promise for the future. "In the long run it will probably work out better," he said. "I would like to be a journeyman and in the future own my own welding shop or be a welding instructor."Michele Hicks, program administrator at Worksystems Inc., said opportunity in welding should be a bigger draw for workers. Hicks said some estimates predict a skill shortage of 14,000 welders by 2012 as older welders age and new workers shy away from the craft."There are negative connotations to metals, but people don’t know that the average wage in the metals industry is $20 an hour," she said. "People see it as a dingy, dirty job. You get burned sometimes because you’re welding. No one has really updated the perception."Worksystems has convened a consortium to correct that image, promoting metals to young workers and re-positioning the industry. The consortium, now co-chaired by PCC and Gunderson representatives, has a challenge, yet workers in the Gunderson program are already seeing returns on their investment. Gustavo Brown, 38, another of Gunderson’s new hires, worked with cement pipes before he got laid off and made the switch to welding. The father of three said welding jobs continue to offer good pay and consistent employment while other industries are lowering wages."When you see the paper there are a lot of jobs for welders," he said. "The way it is right now it’s very hard to get a job with decent pay." Building momentumPaul Wild, director at PCC’s Customized and Workplace Training department, thinks the budding success of the Gunderson program bodes well for Oregon as well as for PCC. While the department is partly designed to produce revenue for the college, it is also charged with improving retraining opportunities for incumbent workers. Use of the governor’s new Employer Workforce Training Fund, Wild said, could be a gateway to increased public support. "The way the economy is going and the way the economy is constantly changing, front-end loaded education is a thing of the past," Wild said. "If we work together we can provide more of this type of training for businesses and support for this kind of thing can be common."Wild said proven success will most encourage public funding for workforce retraining. More public investment in re-training will enable PCC to help working Oregonians stay ahead of changing job trends."The idea is to maximize the opportunities for people to obtain whatever training and education they need to reach whatever their goals are," he said.