JOLIET – Plainfield resident Ryan Kocka enjoys fabricating scrap metal as practice at a local trade school, knowing it will give him the skills needed for a high-demand industry.
The 20-year-old student at Illinois Welding School in Romeoville wasn’t interested in the work when he graduated high school, but he took a semester of welding at Joliet Junior College and found his calling.
“I heard it’s a great trade and it’s in demand,” he said. “Before I came here, welding wasn’t even a thought for me.”
Educational institutions, such as the Illinois Welding School, are filling up to satisfy an increased demand for welders as the baby boomer generation retires, and along with it, longtime skilled workers.
According to a report by Weld-Ed, a national center for welding education and training, between 2009 and 2019, there will be a need for 238,692 new and replacement welding professionals.
That need is being felt in the manufacturing industry in Will and Grundy counties.
Greg Foster, an associate welding professor at Joliet Junior College, said the high demand for welding is primarily because of attrition.
“The average age of the welder is about 60 years old in the country,” Foster said. “For the past five years, baby boomers that have held those jobs for so many years are retiring. And it has created a gap.”
Lockport Steel Fabricators has bent and welded steel since 1943, and Vice President of Operations Dirk Pfeil said the company has worked closely with area high schools and welding programs, such as the one at Joliet Junior College, to promote welding.
“One of the problems is there is not enough young people going into this field,” Pfeil said. “We work with JJC and try to land some of their graduates, but there’s just not a lot of people going through the programs.”
Pfeil said one reason could be because the millennial generation has seen its parents and grandparents get laid off from their manufacturing jobs and welding has “lost a lot of its luster.”
Welding is just one of several manufacturing jobs in demand the past five years, said Nancy Ammer, chief executive officer of the Grundy Economic Development Council.
“There are a lot of things that have driven a resurgence,” Ammer said. “A lot of people with quality jobs and skills are getting to retirement age. The educational community has been responding.”
One of the educational institutions Ammer touted was the Grundy Area Vocational Center, which has a welding program.
Jim Cebulski, a high school teacher at the vocational center, said he teaches welding and helps get students into union trades.
“The shortage has been for about five years,” he said. “The phone has been ringing 200 to 300 percent more, really in the last two years for welders.”
Cebulski said recent welding graduates who hone their trade aren’t having trouble finding basic welding work.
“On the high school end of it, they want to discover it because it looks cool and exciting,” he said.
Cebulski encourages students to join a five-year apprenticeship program with Pipefitters Local Union 597 in Joliet. He went through the program himself.
“The apprenticeship program is one of the last programs where you can go to work, school and get paid from day one,” he said.
Getting into the program is one of Courtney Clark’s main goals after she graduates with a certificate from the Illinois Welding School.
“I tried college for a while, but it wasn’t for me,” said the Channahon resident, who graduated from the Grundy Area Vocational Center.
Clark said she developed a love for welding and discovered it while working on stock cars, but the field’s demand also factored into her decision to pursue the work.
Along with operating at full capacity as a full-time trade school, the Illinois Welding School also advocates for more women such as Clark to develop a welding interest.
“It used to be 99.9 percent males,” said Debra Horn, a welder and co-owner of the school. “But now we have some women welding and we’re trying to cultivate that.”
With a 92 percent placement rate, the Illinois Welding School has worked with several employers to place their graduates, General Manager Tommie Mitchell said.
“It’s based on a good rapport with employers, and relationships,” Mitchell said. “We’ve also been working with staffing agencies.”
Getting a job after finishing a certificate or graduating from a trade school is easier and more lucrative at higher levels of welding, like pipe-fitting, Cebulski said.
X-ray and pipe welders make anywhere from $25 to $55 an hour starting out, based on experience. Structural welders can make between $15 and $20. And manufacturing welders can make $13 to $17, Cebulski said.
Foster said higher-end pipe welding requires more skill, and qualified workers go on to earn a good living. But employers often want workers with years of experience.
“One of the big problems is employers are telling recent graduates they don’t have the experience,” he said, adding that students discover that existing “Wal-Mart-type” jobs they work at pay better than low-end welding jobs.
“To me that’s a travesty,” Foster said. “Not everybody can weld. It’s a highly skilled, hands-on job. It’s on the companies that hire people and don’t want to pay.”
But Foster said employers call him seeking students with specific skill sets. JJC also works with area high schools, including Joliet West, whose welding students received first place at the Moraine Valley Community College high school welding competition Feb. 23.