School Ramps Up to Meet the Rush of Jobs in North Dakota
North Dakota State College of Science has two campuses with state-of-the-art of the art welding cells. The demand for skilled labor means that students are recruited before they leave campus.
It’s a bit of the Old West in parts of North Dakota: Boomtowns like Williston, N.D., home to what some call the richest oil deposits ever found in North America, have more than tripled in population in the last couple of years and the oil field jobs keep coming — the problem is finding qualified employees. The desire to find skilled workers is statewide and creates an advantage for young welders.
North Dakota State College of Science has been around for more than 100 years. As the second-oldest community college in the nation, it has witnessed booms before. This one is different in that the acute lack of skilled labor can be traced to a changed way of growing up here and around the country.
“In the past students would come in here and have a good idea of how to work with hand tools. That’s changed,” says Joel Johnson, program coordinator, NDSCS Wahpeton. “Today we start off by teaching very basic skills. Young people are not exposed to tools and fixing things like we were growing up.”
What hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm and the draw to welding once a young person has been introduced to the craft. Johnson and his counterpart in Fargo, Lee Larson, along with the NDSCS welding staff work with 250 students a year. About a third are focused solely on welding while the others are learning welding as part of technical instruction in diesel mechanics, automotive and other certificated classes.
“Technology has changed and how you teach has changed,” says Lee Larson, program coordinator, NDSCS Fargo. “But the excitement and the awe that happens when you first strike an arc is still there!”
Jacob Doele is the exception to today’s average student. He grew up working with his father, helping him rebuild a car and receiving an unofficial education in hands-on-work. The Fargo native found welding in high school and is turning it into a career, graduating with a two-year associate degree from the Welding technical program in May.
“I knew I wanted to weld more the first time I did it in high school,” says the 20-year-old Doele. “Gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) is my favorite. TIG welding appeals to the perfectionist in me.”
Doele’s journey into employment is a window with a view of what’s occurring in North Dakota. Local employers have recruited Doele, another from Minnesota and the western oil fields remain an option. He has choices.
“We have tons of choices,” says Doele. “A lot of classmates will head out west. I may stay closer to home, but this is definitely the right career choice if you want opportunity.”
It can be difficult to find students interested in welding and skills-related jobs. Occasionally Johnson will have an open bay during a class.
“The trouble is not in encouraging young people once they get here; it’s in drawing the students here in the first place,” says Johnson.
Non-traditional student Betty Dollinger is a great example of recruiting students into the classroom. Dollinger spent 12 years working various jobs in home and road construction. During the spring of 2012 she heard about a program aimed at getting women to try welding. All it took was a day spent in a welding lab, and she was hooked.
“I loved it (welding) from day one,” says Dollinger. “Then I looked at all the jobs available, the opportunities that come with a two-year certificate and I signed up here at the Fargo campus.”
Dollinger is completing her first year of the program. She’s keeping her options open when it comes to where she will end up a year from now.
Johnson and Larson keep the equipment in the labs modern and similar to what welders will see in the field. The learning cells in the main campus at Wahpeton have four new Dynasty® 200 DX welder with the TIGRunner® packages; while in Fargo, 20 XMT® series machines with feeders allow for multiprocess options. Six Invision™ 456 welders handle the bulk of the MIG duties in Fargo while four Dynasty 200 DX TIGRunners provide additional TIG capabilities. Both instructors want to ensure the students are receiving an education with top, cutting-edge equipment. The students also get a shot at some older equipment.
“The modern machines do so much for a student when it comes to settings. It’s click and go,” says Larson. “I think it’s important the student learns how to really work a welder on their own as well. Find the parameters; find what works with a material. It makes for a more well-rounded welder.”
A new class of students is already lining up in Wahpeton and Fargo for the new semester in August. Meanwhile employers keep calling campus looking for new recruits. The students who go through NDSCS know they’ll have plenty of options come graduation day.
NDSCS teach a combined 250 students a year at the Wahpeton and Fargo welding schools.
Jobs are plenty in North Dakota with heavy manufacturers bustling and the oil business booming. The students also find employers from Minnesota knocking on their door.