A Stainless Future is Part of Rock Island Welding School Expansion

A Stainless Future is Part of Rock Island Welding School Expansion

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The apprentice program at Sheet Metal Workers Local 91 is about to embark upon an expansion that will triple the size of the Rock Island, Ill., training facility and bring bigger and better training opportunities for area students. From more space to a central gas system, the anticipated additions have brought excitement, enthusiasm and some stainless steel to the upcoming fall classes.
Updated: May 12, 2020
Published: August 19, 2013

A Stainless Future is Part of Rock Island Welding School Expansion


Local 91 has been training welders at 42nd Street West in Rock Island for 40 years. Instructor Jason Gerdes admits the current 8,000-square-foot facility is showing its four-decade-old age. As the industry has evolved, the equipment has been updated, but the teaching area and student welding cells have retained their original 1970s design. Tried and true for sure, but the planned additional 23,000 square feet will launch the school into a top-of-the-line modern fabrication learning center.

“This expansion is a big deal; growing and broadening the type of training we can offer,” says Gerdes. “The space and the technology alone will improve our operations and allow us to get into higher-end, larger fabrication training that will serve industry in the Quad Cities.”  

Not one to put things on hold, while construction is underway at one end of the building, Gerdes will have his fall apprentices jump right into a stainless steel countertop project — a first for the school. This exciting new project will be good study for the larger, more complicated projects that will help serve the commercial food industry around town. 

“We have welders wanting to be versatile, so they’re working toward receiving certification across several codes,” says Gerdes. “The stainless project is just the beginning of what we will be able to offer when the expansion is complete in the spring of 2014.”

The stainless countertop will challenge the students’ techniques in welding, finishing, grinding, grading and blending 316 stainless steel. Apprentices will be required to fabricate the mitered countertop to meet food grade standards. The purpose of the exercise is to perfect heat control and stainless finishing techniques.

It’s just the beginning in Gerdes’ vision. The new space will include press breaks for bend radius and bend calculations with heavier and thicker material. More plasma cutting capability and a larger hydro shear press break will be added to the shop. 

“We will be implementing more industrial projects — for example, the bend radius exercises. Students will be required to mathematically compute what size of material they will need and then proceed to bend some very interesting shapes,” says Gerdes. “These shapes will then be placed in a fixture. It either fits or it doesn’t. There is no second chance. It’s a real-world challenge.”

The renovation will add three times the space for welders and fabrication tools. The school’s fleet of Miller® power sources — including XMT multiprocess machines, Syncrowave® TIG welders and a host of Millermatic® welders — will ensure a real-world welding curriculum of industrial and construction-welding applications.

The basics are covered — GMAW, SMAW, FCAW and GTAW — along with a healthy dose of classroom time dedicated to turning apprentices into practitioners.  Structural steel, large ventilation, high-end custom food grade products and other industrial fabrication training will be standard parts of the program once construction is complete.

“We also currently do a commercial grease duct project. The apprentices learn about applicable codes, then design, fab and install commercial grease duct runs built from 16-gauge mild steel,” says Gerdes.

The philosophy at the school revolves around training men and women to be the best welder/fabricators they can be and to be able to meet the challenges of fieldwork. Students are tested at the end of the program to put classroom knowledge, welding lab practice and new skills together and demonstrate what they have learned.  

“Once they have obtained those skills, they are asked to tackle the projects and to perfect those welding skills in real-world scenarios,” says Gerdes. “The students are given the opportunity to obtain a variety of different AWS welding certifications that are used in our industry on a regular basis. We have this down after 40 years of training.”

With a track record of success, a year-round fabrication program, dozens of contractors supplying the talented students and 23,000 square feet of soon-to-be-built classroom space, Gerdes is excited about the prospects for the next 40 years at Local 91.