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The welding trade could use a few good young men and women -- actually, a lot of them.

As young people graduating high school focus on getting college degrees and office jobs, the need for qualified welders in the region keeps growing.

The Niagara Frontier section of the American Welding Society hopes to stimulate interest in joining the trade through a welding competition it's staging for the first time on Saturday.

Twenty-nine juniors and seniors from vocational schools in the region will participate in the contest, which consists of welding work and a written test. The first-place student in each grade will win $250; the second- and third-place finishers will win $125 and $75 each, respectively.

"The welding industry needs welders and this is a great way to promote it," said Thomas Matecki, a welder with Quality Inspection Services in Buffalo.

The contest will be held at Welding Training Services, a training center which is a division of Quality Inspection. The center routinely receives calls from employers eager to hire people going through training, underscoring the area's shortage.

"The more people they have trained and certified, the more work they can bid on," said Frank Schweers, who's retired from welding but remains active in promoting it.

Meanwhile, the welding school has attracted many students who were employees displaced from jobs in other fields and are starting over by learning a trade, said Frank Daniel, the school's director. "The opportunities, even in the Buffalo area, are outstanding right now."

Welding jobs also tend to be high-paying, Daniel noted: a highly skilled welder can earn around $30 an hour. Even an entry-level welder can earn as much as $11 or $12 an hour, he said.

As Western New York struggles to bolster its job count, demand for welders and other tradespeople remains high. The American Welding Society has scholarship money to give away through
a statewide program, but often lacks takers.

Schweers said he tries to get students to start thinking about welding as early as seventh and eighth grade. If he waits until students reach high school, he said, many of them are already focusing on other types of careers. The emphasis on going to college is one factor cited by Buffalo school officials that has reduced student interest in vocational training.

Angelique Miller, 20, knows first-hand what the welding trade is up against in recruiting young people. She was interested in welding in high school in Montana, but at her mother's urging, she gave college a try after graduation. She didn't enjoy it, left after two years, and went on to welding.

Miller is finishing up a training program at Welding Training Services and is headed for the College of Oceaneering in California. She plans to become an underwater welder and would like to work for the Department of Defense or NASA someday.

"I think when young people are in high school, they're pushing them toward college," Miller said. Because of that emphasis, she said, many students are unaware of the opportunities that the trades offer.

Local people involved in welding are hopeful that this weekend's contest will be one step toward bringing new recruits into the fold. "I think the more people that are exposed to the welding field, the more interest will be generated," Daniel said.

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