CH2M Hill launches program to teach welding

Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal

Eighteen-year-olds Dakota Rudolph and Andrey Zagorodniy had spent all week behind protective gear as sparks flew by their faces or burning through metals with enough heat to turn a laptop into fertilizer ash.

Both agreed: it beat a classroom, especially if it leads to a job.

These two were part of CH2M Hill’s structural welding pilot program to help prepare young people to take on welding roles with the company. Two sets of classes of 20 students each used the Anchorage fabrication shop for a week to get hands-on exposure to welding, I-beams, scissor lifts and rigging training to cover the same things they will encounter on the job.

The program is free and voluntary for the young folks. For many of them, it didn’t take much convincing.

“This is definitely a lot of fun but this is what I love to do and greatest thing in the world. Next greatest is finding a job that’s going to pay you to do it,” Rudolph said.

The two teens have a good feeling this experience will help with that. Passing students come away with structural certifications for one-inch plates and are also entered into a continuity log for six months and so can weld for CH2M Hill as opportunities come up.

The program is for beginning welders but not necessarily for newcomers. Rudolph and Zagorodniy both are in the welding program at Colony High School, one of the participating partners in this venture, along with the King Career Center, the Alaska Vocational and Technical Education Center and Northern Industrial Training.

Students like Rudolph and Zagorodniy have been learning the basics through Colony High’s welding program for a few years now. But their classroom experience has been just that. The idea is to expose them to a real work environment while receiving instruction from seasoned welding professionals. They do the same work they would be expected to on a job site and they’re expected to follow the same safety standards, especially after an intense safety training when they first come in.

“They’ve given us a chance to use all their resources,” Zagorodniy said

Throughout that work, they were coached by CH2M Hill welders, instructors and safety officers. Resource Manager Sara Gould said when a project manager stopped by to give instructions on what it’s like on a site, the students’ curiosity was so encouraging that this manager answered questions a whole hour longer than scheduled.

“Our goal is to have good folks who have expressed interest, and not just the young people who think they want to be welders, they’ve already started somehow,” said David Hopkinson, CH2M Hill vice president of construction.

This is why the company looked for students in schools who have made some strides in the profession. Workforce Development Manager Trevor O’Hara said of the majority of those in the program are still in high school. A few are recent graduates. He credited the school as being generous in freeing up the time for them.

The program was also timed during the construction slow season, so the fabrication area would be clear and professionals would be more readily available. The participants hope that once things get busy in the summer, so will they. While there are no job guarantees, students are added to a list of available employees for when opportunities arise.

Sparking a job plan

O’Hara and Gould brought this pilot program into being. O’Hara has been tasked with creating new initiatives like this to focus on Alaska hires and other resources.

“Of those plans, this was the one that really stuck,” Hopkinson said. “It’s one we thought we could do well. It’s one that we have the facilities, we have the people, the professional craftsmen that can actually do the training.”

O’Hara said an advantage of starting with a structural welding program lies in both the demand for workers plus, the measurability of results. He said the tests involving vertical and overhead positions plus stick and wire are clear-cut ways to determine passing levels. The results are even X-rayed and checked through a third party to make sure students can do the job.

Hopkinson said that moving them out of a classroom and into a fabrication shop helps introduce them to the demands of the oil and gas industries, safety standards and must-know features of the work, such as basic rigging and material handling.

With this training, students from these four partners will be able to start work immediately as positions become available.

Hopkinson said there is a gap in the industry and in Alaska hires, so the purpose is to prepare young people to fill jobs for the next several years.

He describes the problem as a “70/30 gap,” with the average jobs filling with about 70 percent local hires over the last several years, but the more skilled labor jobs are more difficult to fill locally. Also, a lot of qualified people are leaving the state.

“In this case here, after two class we’ll probably have 18 people certified. That’s 18 welders who weren’t here yesterday,” he said.

O’Hara said that even though welding work is cyclical, the demand is there for such skill sets.

“I’ve been in this industry for about nine years in the personnel side of things and I’ve seen where you cannot find enough structural welders or other trades as well, so we’re a trade-deficient nation and Alaska is no exception,” he said.

With this program under their belts, Rudolph said they expect to be able to jump into work full-time this summer when things pick up.

Rudolph would like to stay with CH2M Hill as a welder for at least a few more years to build up some savings before college or whatever else may lie ahead. He said welders make a good living, which is part of the driving force of his volunteering for the program.

Rudolph and Zagorodniy are already certified through the Colony program, and this program will allow them to get additional qualifications through CH2M Hill. With the added skills and certifications, they expect to be able to hit the ground running when the work comes around. Rudolph said there’s more to the job for him. It’s become a true passion; it even helped him bring up his grades.

“Welding’s definitely turned me around,” he said.

The company spent about $1,000 per student for this program. O’Hara said this pilot program was a gamble, but more so with the work factor than the financial investment, since jobs are not immediately available and time will tell how that changes once summer rolls around.

“This gamble’s saying yeah, we’re going to have the work or we will in the near future to out them to get them employed,” he said, noting that the company is careful not to overstep by giving false job promises.

“Our company needs to gain the work as well,” he said.

Hopkinson has been pleased with the results, saying 70 percent of the students have moved up enough to jump into a real work environment.

Now that the pilot part is done, the question remains: what’s next? The administrators will evaluate how the students worked out and decide if another program will be in store.

Hopkinson said a continuation could consist of another welding program. Another option is a similar program for pipefitting, which also is in high demand.

“The long and short of it is this is one of those little operations that can turn into a great outreach,” O’Hara said.

11/07/2016 - 2:45pm