Tulsa Welding School Teaches Careers in Demand

Editor at Large

PRACTICAL EDUCATION: Welding graduates from Tulsa Welding School are in demand and are making excellent incomes, according to many sources.

DAVID JONES for GTR Newspapers

People looking for a new career might do well to consider welding, says Tulsa Welding School President Aleco Babikian. The reason is simple. Many of today’s trained welders are in their late 50s and are inching towards retiring. This is creating a tremendous need for skilled and experienced workers to replace them. The shortage is not restricted to welders. At Boeing, according to a recent Washington Post article, 28 percent of the company’s 31,000 machinists are over 55 and close to retirement. Trained replacements are hard to find.

What led to the shortage? “I think it’s a generational thing,” says David Gilliam, director of training at the welding school. “After World War II, people looked to get into college rather than go to work on a shop floor. The number of so-called blue-collar workers began to decline. With the aging of the baby boomers the trend is now catching up to us. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, Babikian says there will be nearly 450,000 welding jobs available nearing 2014.

Babikian says typically we have a company come to our campus, which is located at 2545 E. 11th St., every week looking for skilled workers. These are companies not only from Tulsa but also from all over the U.S. “They all have different needs. They come in, give their own tests, see who fits their needs and offer jobs. Through these and other sources, we estimate that over three-quarters of our graduates quickly find jobs.”

The school currently has 705 students learning the welding craft. They are divided into 10 groups of roughly 70 students each. For seven months, they work their way through the school going three weeks each through 10 different stages. Each week they spend four days getting hands-on training and one day in the classroom. Skilled welders are there to help them through the rough spots. The ratio of instructor to students is never more than one in 20. By graduation day, the students have basic welding skills.

It is not an inexpensive skill to acquire. A seven-month course costs almost $17,000. The tuition includes a full gear package, textbooks, equipment and everything needed to get a start in welding. Starting pay for graduates is steadily becoming more competitive as the demand and shortage of welders increases. Along with these competitive wages many of these companies are now offering generous relocation packages. Most welders don’t know what a 40-hour week is. Many of them work upward of 60 hours and the overtime boosts the hourly pay average considerably.

The work life, for a welder, can be a bit unlike that of his next-door neighbor. As experience and recognition increase and along with it the paycheck, a number of welders learn to have a schedule others might well envy. “I have a friend,” says Gilliam, “who gets jobs that last from two to four months each. A welder might work on a project for a period of time and when that project is completed he’s at liberty. My friend works hard for seven or eight months, saves his money, then goes on a four or five month vacation to hunt deer and go fishing. He’s content with the money he makes and uses his spare time as he sees fit.”

Those who do not find a job, he says, are often those unable or unwilling to leave their homes. “I recognized a former student at a job fair and asked him where he was working. He said he couldn’t find a job. I asked him why he didn’t leave home and a woman behind him who was introduced as his mother said simply, ‘He’s not going to.’ Like every job you have to go where the opportunities exist.” Another problem is the student who just barely gets passing grades, does mediocre work and has a spotty attendance record. Companies take note of such things and, unless desperate, are unlikely to offer such a worker a job.

Most of the students are post-high school age but with the recent economic downturn older students have begun enrolling. “We even have one student who is 60,” says Don Smith, director of admissions, “but he is a retiree who just wants to work on motorcycles in his garage. If he sells one or two a year, he’ll be happy.”
Babikian emphasizes that welding can be grueling work. “The machines are hot and you’re often working outside. Sometimes you’re climbing a ladder 40 or 50 feet to work on piping still over your head. It can be tiring.”

The school offers another seven month course that earns the student the title of associate of occupational studies in welding technology. This enables him to become an inspector. The second seven months carries the same tuition as the first seven months. Whether the extra work is worth it or not is up to the individual to decide.

The jobs are out there. The Washington Post article said there are 600,000 manufacturing jobs begging because the numbers of qualified workers simply aren’t there. Institutions like Tulsa Welding School can help cut into that number.

Updated 02-27-2012

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