Tuesday, February 14, 2017

TOP STORY >> Welding school to grow

Leader staff writer

The average age of welders in the United States is 58, according to Alice Obenshain, director of Arkansas Welding Academy in Jacksonville.

“Within the next eight, 10, 12 years, when they reach 65 and retire, we stand to lose half of our welding workforce in the United States,” she said.

“That’s a huge tsunami coming for the career field. We need to get on board and train as many welders as we can to get out there and learn from these older welders before the new generation comes on board,” Obenshain explained.

In May 2013, Obenshain and her husband, Quan Tran, opened Arkansas Welding Academy with four students. The program now has an average of 26 students and three instructors – with a maximum enrollment capability of 32 students. In a few months that capability will jump to 60 enrollment slots with the school adding two new buildings for administration and training. Two more instructors will be brought in when the school opens the new buildings.

The school was granted a building permit Jan. 24 for $823,000 for the additions. Obenshain, her husband and instructor Bradley Rogers are doing the welding on the new structures themselves. The administration building will be more than 6,000 square feet. Footing for the building is set to be poured next week.

“It’s my baby,” Obenshain said of the trade school. “My husband and I opened it. My husband is a longtime welder, and I’m a CWI (certified welding inspector).”

The school came about “overnight, but it was a progression of events” that lead to the development of the school, according to Obenshain. “I ran a lot of labs at test facilities out in the field,” she said. “I followed more and more welders coming in and, what we call out in the field, busting a test. I started asking questions like ‘where did you learn how to weld?’”

She traveled around the country and toured the most frequently mentioned welding schools and programs.

Obenshain said she ignored it for a couple years. “I was thinking this is going to be a huge project, and it kind of scared me honestly,” she said. “But it just kept getting progressively worse. I saw no end in sight.”

“I found why it’s not working,” she said. “This isn’t really rocket science. It’s a trade skill. It’s an art. You’re not going to learn it sitting in a classroom. You’re not going to learn it by watching a video or having a Ph.D. come in and talk about it. That’s what the majority were doing. The average was 50 percent classroom and 50 percent hands on training. There’s one school in the United States that does not have a welding machine. They virtually train.”

When she asked what their theory behind virtual training was, they gave her the analogy that “when you have a pilot, you train them in flight simulators.”

“I would not knowingly get on a plane that my pilot has been simulated and that’s it, no hours behind the wheel. Taking off and landing those are kind of important aspects. It’s not an Xbox game,” she said.

Obenshain believes that an important component of training is the employer. “They’re the user of your graduates. You have to make sure what you’re training is important and useful out in the field so that they can get jobs,” she said. “We have to collaborate with our employers so that we understand their processes, the types of metal they use and what their weld tests are and mimic those here.”

The school uses real world conditions to train their students.

“At a lot of schools you can find seats in the booths or that they can move the weld and make it ergonomically comfortable for them. That’s not real world,” Obenshain said. “It’s air conditioned or heated spaces. Their job as a training facility is to make the students comfortable. That’s wrong. They’re going to be too shocked and awed. You’ve got to train as you expect to go on. You’ve got to subject them to as close to the same environment as they’re going to see out in the field.”

The training buildings at Arkansas Welding Academy have no heat or air conditioning.

“We teach them to layer up. We teach them that even if it’s 110 degrees you’ve got to cover up or you’re going to be damaged,” she said. “There’s no sitting in welding. There’s no rolling. It is in place, and it’s restricted positions typically. Just imagine two inches away from the wall and putting a green hard hat on and a welding hood on, what are you going to do with that? You’ve got to train for that. Those were the components that were missing.”

The curriculum consists of four classroom and 36 hours of welding per week. Students will earn a diploma and certifications such as the American Welding Society certification. The program can take anywhere from three to seven months. The average student takes about five months to complete the program.

Four welding processes are taught: Mig, tig, stick and flex core.

“They are used in 90 percent of the industry,” she said. The school uses stainless and carbon steel metals that are industry grades. Obenshain hopes to be able to add in other metals and alloys in the future.

“There’s a lot more that we can teach and learn that we can show them to make them even more eligible for a variety of projects, which will then enhance our job placement, which is at this time 92 percent,” she said. “Our completion rate is 88 percent.”

The school is working on Title 4 accreditation. “Once we have the accreditation, then we can partner with other Title 4 schools,” Obenshain said. “We’re contact hour, they’re credit hour, so we will have to do the conversion for the credit hours. At this point, it’s going to look like 29 credit hours.”

She hopes to eventually be able to partner with a university and offer a certified welding engineer program. “It’s very rare, and very needed,” she said. “There’s only one state, one college that offers the program and that’s Ohio State. My hope is to be the second to offer that program.”

For more information about Arkansas Welding Academy, visit arkansasweldingacademy.com.