Megail McFarland has worked service jobs at hotels and spent several years in carpentry, masonry and construction work. Then he heard about a welding class at Delgado Community College in New Orleans.
“These skills would help me get somewhere,” the 25-year-old decided.
Now, he’s participating in a welding program that is a partnership between a major corporation and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
The accelerated program uses long hours and lots of lab work over four-day weeks to cut six months from what previously had been an 18-month period of welding instruction. Those who persevere through 24-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 welders.
Praxair Inc., a Fortune 250 company, last year donated $300,000 for the accelerated training of 100 new welders across three schools. The others are Baton Rouge Community College 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 Delgado and BRCC and provided insights into the needs of industrial and commercial companies for skilled, knowledgeable welders. She said she will visit SOWELA soon.
“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 New Orleans, Baton Rouge 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.”
“You have to be committed,” said instructor Carey Johnson, 56, of Harvey.
Johnson has 17 students, ranging in age from 19 to 35, in a Praxair welding class at Delgado’s West Jefferson site in Harvey.
“You have to be dedicated,” Johnson tells his students, who are 16 men and one woman. “Otherwise, you will not accomplish your goal.”
Employers are looking for welders who are precise, Johnson said, because precision lowers costs.
“Welding is an art,” Johnson said. “First-time quality, they call it.”
Johnson had a welding career of 35 years, the last 22 of which were spent at the former Avondale Shipyard, whose owners phased out operations there.
Johnson recalled welding on U.S. Navy ships, icebreakers and supply ships.
“Welding, cutting, ship-fitting, pipe-fitting. When you were over there (Avondale), you kind of had to learn every part of the business,” Johnson said.
McFarland, who is one of Johnson’s students, said the toughest part of his training is the need to shut outside problems or interests away from his classwork.
“You have to stay dedicated,” McFarland said. “You have to show up and get things done.”
The best part of the training, McFarland added, is “Mr. Johnson.”
McFarland said Johnson commands attention when he switches the class from one welding skill to another. He said that focuses students’ efforts and makes work on each new skill fresh and interesting.
“Every day, most of our class is in the (welding) lab — every day,” McFarland said. “I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
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 program’s initial classes attracted about 100 students.
Sullivan said that initial enrollment “is a good sign for the program’s future. Praxair has been a great partner for us.”
Even 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, Sullivan added.
“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.”