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As demand for welders jumps, community colleges fill a training gap

HOUSTON – Ryan Gassett had already put in a full day, moving heavy boxes and furniture for $15 an hour, when his introductory welding class began at 10 p.m. By the time he arrived at Lone Star College north of Houston, the highway toll collectors at the exit for the school had closed for the night and the campus janitors were mopping restrooms.

The graveyard-shift course was not his first choice, Gassett, 19, explained, but “there were no other openings.” So he took what he could get.

In recent decades, welding – like other blue-collar trades that once provided high school graduates with a reliable route to the middle class – seemed to have about as promising a future as rotary phones. But many of these once-faltering occupations are finding new life in Texas and the Gulf Coast region, where an industrial revival built around the energy boom continues to spawn petrochemical plants and miles of new pipeline despite a plunge in the prices of crude oil.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jim Hanna, a 33-year industry veteran who is now senior director of human resources at Fluor Corp., an engineering and construction company that is building petrochemical plants in the area for Dow Chemical, Chevron Phillips Chemical and Sasol. “For a long time, parents didn’t want their son or daughter to become a pipe fitter or welder, but now, the demand for noncollege graduates with vocational skills is huge.”

The insistent hunger for welders in the Gulf Coast region has created an unusually close partnership between the energy industry and local community colleges to train people for disappearing skills.

Fluor and other construction-related companies regularly contribute money, advice and castoff equipment. Exxon Mobil, for example, has pledged $1 million to a consortium of nine community colleges that offer training in the petrochemical field to recruit students and faculty.

President Obama has proposed expanding this sort of alliance between schools and industry in his latest budget. It is an element of a larger plan to use community colleges to prepare greater numbers of young people for the 21st-century workforce and promote long-term economic growth.

“Companies have been telling us about the demand they’re going to have,” said Jeffrey Parks, a dean at San Jacinto College, south of Houston. So the school offers training for process operators, who help run the plants; instrument technicians; structural inspectors and other skilled jobs. San Jacinto even has a fully operational classroom-size plant where students run a miniature glycol distillation unit.

In Oyster Creek, about an hour south of Houston, Fluor also operates its own training site aimed at rebuilding the thinned ranks of welders. A large roadside banner, proclaiming that welders can earn $35 an hour, beckons potential job seekers. Yellow school buses transport workers to nearby round-the-clock construction sites, where they put in 10- to 12-hour shifts before returning to a makeshift trailer hub for free welding, pipe fitting and other classes.

“We’ve got a big gap,” said Jennifer Taylor, a training coordinator at Fluor. “The old ones are retiring and the new ones are just coming up.”

Through most of the 1980s, the number of welders nationwide topped 550,000. By 2013, there were just 343,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though the bureau projected that the number of welding jobs would rise by 6 percent nationwide in coming years, the American Welding Society recently estimated at least a 10 percent jump over the next decade.

In the Energy Belt, positions are already available. Fluor alone plans to hire 7,000 craft workers over the next three years, including 600 welders, just for its construction projects in Texas and Louisiana.

In Oyster Creek, Taylor arrives in time to put out snacks and coffee for the bone-tired 4 a.m. class members.

“The money is what brings them in; a welder can make a six-figure income easy,” said Taylor, who is married to a master welder.

Entry-level welders can earn about $16.50 an hour. Experienced structural welders earn over $30, plus a per-diem expense bonus. Specialty welders command $55 to $100 an hour, the upper end offered for someone, say, who can work underwater.

While the downturn in prices is hurting oil rigging, said Scott Marshall, a vice president for human resources at Jacobs, an engineering and construction firm, “by and large, there’s still a large number of petrochemical projects along the Gulf Coast and Southeast United States to keep this industry booming for a while.”

Night welding classes at San Jacinto and Lone Star attract high school graduates with no experience who live at home, entry-level welders who want to increase their skills and pay, and experienced craftsmen from other states who are lured here by the high pay but lack a degree. Many begin their schooling only when their day jobs end.

C.J. Molina, a 36-year-old military veteran with four children, attends the graveyard-shift welding class at San Jacinto twice a week.

“I want to run my own business,” said Molina, who works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a welder earning $20 an hour. He is also studying business administration online, paid for by his veterans benefits.

Molina figures that with his own welding truck, he could travel from job to job and earn $75 to $100 an hour including renting out his equipment and skills.

As for Gassett, he started studying business administration at Dallas Christian College after graduating from high school last May, but got bored and quit. A friend of the family who worked at Lone Star told him about welding.

“The first day I was in this class, our instructor made me excited and want to come to school,” he said after he finished fishing for bits of discarded metal in a trash bin.

Then he snapped on a new protective suede jacket and picked up his mask, ready to strike his first welding arc.