Harper College Welding Program Connects Education and Industry

Harper College Welding Program Connects Education and Industry

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In just over a decade, the welding program at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, has grown from a handful of students to more than 400 students each year. That growth has been spurred in part by the connection to the local manufacturing industry — Harper’s welding program has partnerships with nearly 150 local companies. Harper students also reap the benefits of the Miller LiveArc™ welding performance management system, which combines a welding simulator with a live arc MIG welder.

The welding program at Harper College is strategically located near the Golden Corridor, an area of the greater Chicago metro known as a “gold mine” of economic profit due to its abundance of manufacturing work, which includes metal fabrication and welding jobs. That means the students in Harper’s welding program have access to a number of paid internships that often lead to employment opportunities, as the college program has partnerships with nearly 150 local companies. Sometimes these employers will even hire standout students and pay for the rest of their education, to get a jump on welding talent.

What makes the internships that are available through Harper College’s welding program unique? In addition to the fact that they are often paid, students complete the internships early in their training. This provides them with an opportunity to test their new skills out in a real-world setting and also get exposed to areas of the business they might not otherwise become familiar with until after they graduate.

“One student got an internship at a local company and, while he was there, discovered his true love: supply chain. Now he’s a manager of a local company’s supply chain department,” says Kurt Billsten, who leads Harper College’s welding program. “These internships help students see the big picture of how everything fits together and then help them concentrate more on what’s really important to them based on what they truly want to do.” 

Over the past 13 years, Billsten has watched — and helped — the program grow from nine students to more than 400 students per year. While some are working professionals looking to pick up a new skill, the majority of the program’s students are new welders looking to gain an employable skill that will open up their earning potential and pave their way to a brighter future. Today, the college is the official training center for the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, which recently donated $500,000 to the program.

Billsten attributes the program’s impressive growth to the fact that Cook County has a wealth of welding jobs as well as the population to support the demand for more fabricators. But he also gives credit to the Harper College administration, which values the welding program and puts money into it whenever they see that an investment will benefit the students or community.

Some students are working welding professionals who are taking classes at Harper College to learn new skills and keep up to date on technologies as they advance in their careers. And almost all of the instructors come from industry. In fact, many of the welding instructors at Harper College are working at welding jobs during the day and teaching at night.

Billsten worked in the industry for more than a decade before becoming a teacher. So when he set up the welding program at Harper, he modeled it after a manufacturing plant and designed several different areas that ultimately resemble a professional plant layout. The program now has 36 welding booths.  

After returning to a local community college to take more welding classes while working full-time in metal fabrication, Billsten was asked by a college in Elgin, Illinois, to teach a class. He taught part-time for a few years before deciding that he felt most fulfilled when teaching welding to others.

“I teach students of all ages, from teens to adults in their 60s, and one of the things that’s so refreshing about teaching is watching them begin a semester when everything is new — and then watching them change over the course of the semester,” he says. “The other thing I love about it is that you always have a couple of students every semester who think they’re going to be stuck in a dead-end job for the rest of their lives, but they step it up and learn a new skill and get a job… and then they come back years later and bring their family with them.”

The Harper College welding program teaches numerous processes relevant to both welding and metal fabrication and uses Miller® equipment almost exclusively.

“All of our products have been Miller from the start, and we have everything from a 1960s TIG welder to the latest Dynasty® TIG welder, Invision™ 450 MPa and XMT® multi-process welders,” Billsten says. “We have a great partnership with Miller, and they recently lent us a Panasonic welding cell. As soon as area companies heard we were getting it, they wanted to send us students.”

The other Miller product that Billsten says has been invaluable to the program is the LiveArc™ welding performance management system, an advanced welding trainer that combines a simulator with live arc welding.

“Sometimes there are students who aren’t doing something quite right, but none of the instructors can pinpoint exactly what,” Billsten says. “Once you put them on the LiveArc, you can figure out what it is within 30 minutes because it provides visual and kinesthetic cues when they’re doing something wrong.”

One of the welding projects that Harper students are completing for the community involves building bicycle racks for local businesses. The businesses provide the welding materials and the program provides the labor. Billsten says the racks are branded with the Harper College welding program name and ultimately serve as out-of-home advertising for the program. 

Updated: February 5, 2020
Published: April 21, 2016