Brandon Staples lifts his helmet to check on the settings of the electricity transformer as he coaches a classmate through a stick weld during a DMACC welding certification class. The helmets react to the flash of light from a weld by automatically darkening.
Brandon Staples lifts his helmet to check on the settings of the electricity transformer as he coaches a classmate through a stick weld during a DMACC welding certification class. The helmets react to the flash of light from a weld by automatically darkening.
October 9, 2013

In the back of a former Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop in Carroll, Jack Thompson forges a vital tool for the manufacturing industry in today's economy - the modern welder.

This fall, Des Moines Area Community College implemented a two-semester welding-certification program to address the rapidly growing need for welders in the workplace, both in the local economy, and across the state and nation.

"Ultimately, we're trying to get them eligible to work so they can finish the program while they work because we know there's a shortage out there," DMACC provost Steve Schulz said of the accelerated program. "The shop isn't overly fancy at this point, but the equipment is quite good. We're trying to send out a well-rounded person."

There are four main types of welding, explained Thompson: metal inert gas (MIG); tungsten inert gas (TIG); stick, a shielded metal arc welding process utilizing a self-contained rod; and oxy-fuel. MIG is the standard weld in production lines, while TIG, which is a cleaner, less-porous weld, is used primarily in the food industry. The tighter TIG weld is better at preventing bacteria buildup. Primarily used with aluminum, the process employs a hand-held gun and a filler rod, making the bead work more tedious than its MIG counterpart, which employs a large machine that runs a continuous feed from a 40-pound wire spool.

The industrial grade MIG welder at the DMACC shop is the same that would be used to build dump trucks at Scranton Manufacturing Co. Inc, located in Scranton, while the TIG is used liberally at Evapco Inc., located in Lake View, for items such as the exhaust fans that run over conveyor belts in food-packaging plants, said Schulz, adding that markets for such products are expanding rapidly in India and Russia.

Students at DMACC practice all four types of welds. Classes include MIG 1 and MIG 2, math for technicians, blueprint reading and prefabrication, which includes structuring metal to build things through bending, shearing, slicing and dicing. Classes also include instruction on the use of hand grinders and plasma cutters. At the end of the course, welds are sent off to be tested for execution and strength.

"A weld has to create a fusion of both metals," Thompson explained. "You're putting in a filler metal that fuses back into the metal as it melts it together. Most times the actual weld is stronger than the original material."

Once approved, the students receive their American Welding Society certification, marking them nationally qualified.

The program currently accommodates 10 people at a time. This fall's class is comprised primarily of nontraditional students, including a lawyer and a retired art teacher who wanted to learn welding as a hobby. Several students are currently employed in the field but want to complete their certification. Others are seeking a change in profession. One such student has worked in salons, at New Hope, and in the Carroll and Kuemper school districts; she joined the welding class following a divorce, viewing the abundance of advertised welding jobs as an opportunity to provide a primary income for herself.

Starting pay for welders in the area generally ranges from $15 to $18 per hour, said Thompson. In union shops, or areas closer to larger cities, this starting salary can jump up to the mid-$20s per hour.

Because welding is an area in which the state has identified a shortage of workers, students who meet certain income-eligibility guidelines can receive GAP tuition assistance, essentially taking the welding classes tuition free.

"There is such a shortage of welders, everybody recognizes it," said Schulz. "That's why everybody is gearing up these programs like we're trying to do here."

DMACC has offered basic welding classes for more than a decade, but as part of the maintenance program, said Thompson, who has been a DMACC instructor for 14 years.

"Maintenance people may need to step into different areas and do different types of welds," he said. "Now we're stepping up to the next level where we can get people in here to do nothing but weld."

"We've had two-year welding degrees, but that's too long," confirmed Schulz. "We want to shorten the time frame up and offer a quicker way into the job market, not only for employees, but for employers, to meet the demand."

Ideally, DMACC hopes to expand its program to reach high school students as well, eventually enabling them to graduate with both the welding certificate and their high school diploma.

"The whole deal now is how do you get young kids interested in welding," said Schulz. "They have to have some experience to get them to take up some of those jobs."

Thompson plans to offer another round of classes in the spring as well. Registration for the program will be open through Jan. 7. For more information on the program, or tuition assistance, call DMACC at 712-792-1755.