While the recession has deprived many workers of employment, America’s need for skilled welders is still strong. So the leaders of a construction industry association and its union workforce are more committed than ever to providing the Midwest with a steady supply of highly trained welders.
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The Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of Chicago and United Association Local Union (LU) 597 constantly work to recruit new welders and provide them with state-of-the-art training. Member contractors of the association work with LU 597 pipe fitters and service technicians to build powerhouses, install and service heating and air conditioning systems, and install piping wherever it is needed, from plants to oil refineries.
One might think a high-demand career would have a consistent over-abundance of applicants — but such has not been the case with welding. Recently, however, more people have been looking into careers with LU 597.
The LU 597 Training Center in Mokena, Ill., is the largest pipe fitters’ training center in America. The Center features state-of-the-art technology, including equipment for virtual welding — the latest in cutting-edge instruction. Apprentices can simulate welding with a heatless rod while watching a visual simulation on a specially equipped welding helmet.
“Virtual welding makes them aware of the equipment,” said John Leen, Training Director for LU 597. “It’s very popular with young people who like video games. Students can use the system during lunchtime to try it out or get in more practice. We have found that those who add virtual welding to their training learn more quickly than those who only do hands-on welding.”
The Training Center promotes their welding program with a truck-and-trailer combination that they have nicknamed Clifford the Big Red Truck. “The truck, made by International, is the largest production pick-up truck on the market,” Leen said. “It seats five people for parades and other functions."
The spacious trailer contains a LU 597 history and heritage room, and toward the back are three fully functional welding booths. "The trailer is mainly a recruitment tool," Leen said, "but it is also used for training and testing certification on jobsites.”
The UA is reaching out to diverse segments of our nation’s community to encourage more people to become welders. Working with the Department of the Interior/Indian Affairs, the UA is recruiting Native American workers, a population that has experienced severe unemployment problems.
As a result of these efforts, two classes of Native Americans have enrolled as apprentices in the Hybrid Welding Program, an accelerated program being offered at LU 597. Through this initiative, these Native American apprentices will obtain much-needed careers.
During the 16-week fast-track program, students attend class for eight hours per day, 40 hours per week. The UA Hybrid Welding Program is provided at no cost to the Native American apprentices.
Welding is also a component of the New Skill Builders program at ACE Technical Charter High School, commonly known as ACE Tech, in Chicago. LU 597 and MCA of Chicago are major supporters of ACE Tech, where high school students receive an education that prepares them for construction industry careers. Participants in the New Skill Builders' welding component are adults who take classes in construction skills through ACE Tech.
Linda Hannah, a recruiter for LU 597, is the Program Director of the New Skill Builders program. "We received a grant for $200,000 in stimulus money to set up four welding booths for the program," Hannah said. "The booths are set up at a satellite location. Students are supervised as they try out welding as a possible skill, and it is always exciting when someone discovers that they enjoy it and can do it as part of their career."
Hannah added that the welding component currently has 14 adult participants. "Seven take part through New Skill Builders and seven are part of the Chicago Women in Trades program," she said. "Our welding program prepares student applicants to succeed in the Hybrid Welding Program of Local 597. We couldn't do this program without the combined support of MCA and the union."