Jesse Farris, a husband and father of two children, works a maintenance job and over the years has sold and installed home theater systems and worked at a couple of industrial sites. Then, he heard at a job fair about a welding course offered by Baton Rouge Community College.
“It just sounded like a golden opportunity,” Farris, 28, of Central, recalled. “It would mean a way to make the kind of money that a person without a college degree usually doesn’t see,” Farris said. “It would mean a better life for me and my wife and two daughters.”
Now, he’s participating in a welding program that is a partnership between Praxair Inc. and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
The accelerated program uses long hours and lots of lab work over four-night weeks to cut six months from what previously had been an 18-month period of welding instruction. Those who persevere through 12-hour weeks will be able to pass tests and gain jobs paying approximately $30,000 to $40,000 annually.
Industry and education officials say Louisiana needs more welders at a time when $60 billion in industrial construction projects are either in progress or scheduled to begin in the next 20 months. The Louisiana Workforce Commission estimated last year that these projects already need 1,190 new welders.
Praxair, a Fortune 250 company, last year donated $300,000 for the accelerated training of 100 new welders across three schools. The others are Delgado Community College in New Orleans and SOWELA Community College in Lake Charles.
Tamara Brown is director of sustainable development and community engagement at Praxair’s headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut. She has met with instructors and students at BRCC and Delgado and plans to visit SOWELA soon. She is providing all of those students insights into the needs of industrial and commercial companies for skilled, knowledgeable welders.
“We are in the welding industry,” Brown said of Praxair, which reported global sales of $12.3 billion for 2014. “We know what happens when you don’t have qualified people on hand. We really care about the craft of welding.”
Added Brown: “That’s our aim with these students … to make sure they’re qualified.”
With seven Praxair facilities in Louisiana, welding students in the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lake Charles areas will be considered for employment with the company after graduation in October.
“We’re definitely going to interview some of them for jobs with Praxair,” Brown said.
She also said Praxair employees work with community college welding instructors in a combined effort to remind students of the demands for safety and professionalism in all industrial settings.
“Being a very good welder is important,” Brown said. “To be competitive, you also need good communication skills … leadership skills (and workplace safety practices). Those are all important.”
Paul Moreau, 60, teaches a Praxair welding course four nights a week at BRCC’s site in New Roads.
“Praxair has been wonderful,” said Moreau, whose 20 students include six women.
“They (women) make great welders,” Moreau said. “I find them very meticulous.”
All 20 students “are really dedicated,” Moreau added. He said they range in age from 17 to 40.
“Tamara Brown has visited with these guys twice and worked with them one on one,” the Brusly resident noted. “It’s working very well.”
The students work jobs in addition to their nightly welding classes, Moreau said. All are working toward a better future.
“Salary is a big factor,” in his students’ classroom diligence, Moreau said. “That’s why they’re here (at night). They pretty much work all day, most of them in construction.”
Those students are taught by a welder with 28 years of experience — including construction of aluminum boats and stainless steel kitchen equipment and ownership and operation of a welding business.
Many of those years also were spent on construction of power generation plants for manufacturers. Other years were spent on turnaround projects at a variety of industrial facilities.
Moreau also has eight years of teaching experience, the first seven of which were spent educating inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Given the current downturn in the oil and gas industry, will his current students have solid chances at claiming welding jobs after they complete their course?
Moreau noted there is strong demand for welders in other industries.
“I don’t think they will have a problem,” Moreau said.
Farris said the “night class just worked out perfect for me.”
That’s because his maintenance job of the past five years begins after welding class concludes at 9 p.m.
The demands for precision and knowledge of different welding and cutting techniques for different jobs are tough, Farris acknowledged.
“When you start a new position, that’s hard,” Farris said. “But you learn it. Once you learn it, it isn’t hard anymore.
“Each new skill mastered is a good feeling,” Farris added.
He said he is “100 percent” sure passing the American Welding Society’s tough skills tests will translate into better job opportunities.
“Whatever you gain here, that’s what you’re going to carry with you to a company that needs a good welder,” Farris said.
Other students also view Praxair-supported welding courses as tickets to better wages.
Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said the new welding program attracted about 100 students across the three schools.
Sullivan said that initial enrollment “is a good sign for the program’s future. Praxair has been a great partner for us.”
Sullivan agreed that the downturn in oil and gas work that followed the past year’s 50 percent drop in crude oil prices is not expected to blunt the need for more welders.
“Everything we’ve seen … indicates to us we continue to grow jobs in Louisiana,” Sullivan said. “We’re still very optimistic about this economy.”
If he’s right, Sullivan said, additional fast-track welding courses will be needed at other LCTCS campuses.
“Certainly, across the Interstate 10 corridor,” Sullivan added. “Definitely in Lafayette and possibly on the north shore” of Lake Pontchartrain.
Praxair’s Brown noted that students in the first three classes “are also getting a glimpse at what it’s like to be in an industrial area.
“We bring it to them,” Brown said.
She said students also are learning “the nice thing about the welding career is that it’s wonderfully transportable to a variety of industries.”
So far, Brown said, the Louisiana students “are doing just a fantastic job.”
She encouraged all of them to “become the best welder and the best possible professional you can be.”