With advanced manufacturing careers on the rise in the United States, and with an aging welding workforce that will create a shortage of more than 200,000 industry professionals by 2020 according to the American Welding Society, JJC’s welding program was well positioned to make some big changes in 2013.
Thanks to funding from a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant (TAACCCT) the college received in 2012, the program’s facilities and equipment underwent significant upgrades and expansions last year. JJC received the grant being one of 21 Illinois community colleges in an education consortium, known as the Illinois Network for Advanced Manufacturing (INAM), that collectively received a $12.9 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to support innovative job training and manufacturing programs.
Today, the program boasts a total of 18 individual welding booths, doubling previous capacity, and includes booths specifically designed for practicing oxy-fuel and gas-tungsten welding. Additionally, a new ventilation system and an upgraded 110-volt electrical system have made the facility truly state-of-the-art.
“Our welding lab is now a utopia learning environment for our students, said Industrial Welding Technology Instructor Greg Foster. “They are absolutely learning the variety of skills they will need to achieve a good welding career.”
The TAACCCT grant also allowed the program to purchase virtual welders, which give students the opportunity to practice and refine their welding skills safely in a simulated environment before moving on to the real booths.
However, new equipment and facilities aren’t the only way the program has expanded to meet the changing needs of the industry. Starting in fall 2014, the program will offer six new specialized welding certificates of completion (CCO), which students can achieve while simultaneously pursuing the industrial welding technology A.A.S. degree. The program also changed to a full academic 16-week schedule as opposed to the previous eight-week schedule, due to the expanded curriculum.
The overhaul of the program came just in time, as interest in welding has grown significantly. From spring 2013 to spring 2014, enrollment grew 100 percent.
“We had 258 students in spring 2014,” said Foster. “Students are starting to realize that there is a very bright future in welding.”
According to a March 2014 Business Week article, a shrinking manufacturing sector since the 1980s had greatly reduced the number of welding jobs nationally. But as manufacturing has steadily grown again since 2009, and since the average age of a welder in the U.S. is 55 which will result in a high number of retirements over the coming years, the industry is finding itself with a shortage of skilled workers prepared to fill those gaps.
Foster said that many graduates of the program have gone on to find great welding careers.
“Students have to be willing to look beyond the immediate Joliet area, but there is absolutely demand for trained welders in the greater Chicagoland area and nationally as well,” he said.
Current JJC student Eric Gasiorowski is one that joined the program upon seeing the many career opportunities that would be available to him in the welding field. The Army reserve veteran and former emergency medical technician-paramedic, 47, was looking to make a switch to a new career field when he learned about welding.
“I wanted a brand new career, and with the huge need for qualified welders, it seemed like the right program to get into.”
Gasiorowski plans to complete the program in December 2014, and says he’s already received a job offer in Australia.
Graduate Dawana Griffin, 27, feels that the program prepared her well for a career in welding. While she found the advanced overhead welding course particularly difficult, she is grateful to have had professors who challenged her and coursework that was designed to provide real-world experiences.
“My instructors always followed through to make sure I actually knew what I was doing,” she said.
Griffin graduated from JJC in May 2014 with an A.A.S. degree in industrial welding technology, and a certificate of achievement in welding and metal fabrication. She is currently searching for employment in the welding field. The Joliet resident, and the first female African-American graduate of JJC’s welding program, said she would love to see more women and minorities pursue careers in the trades.
Griffin credits her father with inspiring her to think outside the box about career paths since she was very young. She said he would buy her Barbie dolls to play with, but always asked her what career each one had. As she would pick different jobs for each of her dolls, she grew up knowing that there would be a world of career possibilities available to her when she was ready.
About the TAACCCT Grant In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act amended the Trade Act of 1974 to authorize the TAACCT Grant Program. TAACCT provides community colleges and other eligible institutions of higher education with funds to expand and improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs that can be completed in two years or less, are suited for workers who are eligible for training under the TAA for Workers program, and prepare program participants for employment in high-wage, high-skill occupations.