September 14, 2013
Mobile, Alabama – With $84,000 in scholarships to award and a plan to nearly triple the welding stations available to students, Bishop State Community College is systematically realigning its curriculum to meet Mobile's workforce needs.
"We've invested a great deal of money into expanding our welding facility, and moving from 50 to 124 welding booths allows us to increase our capacity to train our welders to meet the skilled development demand," said Kathy Thompson, Bishop State's new dean of technical education and workforce development.
In addition, Thompson said one of her first tasks after joining Bishop State was to revise a grant request submitted to the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education administered through the Build Mobile program to shift its focus toward "expanding our student population and really reaching out to those who can't afford to come to school," she said.
The result is an $84,000 Build Mobile grant her department intends to apply toward offering as many as 100 full and partial scholarships for Bishop State's welding program. The intention, she said, is to target "high school youth transitioning from secondary to postsecondary education, career switching adults and others seeking to develop a career in welding," and there's no question demand is there.
In fact, fall enrollment in Bishop State's welding tracks increased nearly 67 percent from 106 students in 2012 to 177 in 2013.
"Enrollment in our (welding) program has exploded, so we identified this as a logical area on which to focus some energy and passion," Thompson said.
Rick Everett, chairman of Bishop State's division of commercial and industrial technology on the Carver campus, said the program's three-tiered program offers students the opportunity to learn as much or as little as they feel is necessary to land the job they want.
The entry-level curriculum, he said, is covered during the first two semesters and includes very basic flux core and stick welding, but the training is sufficient to land employment with many shipyards or construction companies.
"The first semester we cover fillets, and then grooves the second. After that, they can exit if they choose with a short certificate," Everett said.
Those students seeking more skilled positions can opt to complete the intermediate level during the third semester that includes both metal inert gas, or MIG, welding and tungsten inert gas, or TIG, welding. The former is more popular with aluminum craftsmen such as Austal USA, he said.
"This level of training gets you mid-level jobs, and then pipe welding is the highest level. If you work pipe and don't mind traveling, you can make $100,000 a year, easy," Everett said, of the program's fourth and final semester's curriculum.
He said the plan is to have 124 operational welding booths by the end of 2013, which dovetails fairly well with current enrollment that's heavily weighted toward entry-level students.
Of course, the enrollment figures can be misleading, Everett said, because Bishop State also offers some pre-employment training for companies such as Ingalls Shipbuilding and another program in nearby Mt. Vernon which brings the total number of students closer to 230.
With Ingalls, for instance, Everett said he gets between 20 and 25 potential new hires every Monday morning. Within two to three weeks the pre-employment skills have been assessed, he said, and those selected to progress move into Ingalls' apprenticeship program.
"Those who don't make it we recruit to come into our regular program in January, so they can get up to speed and maybe make the next round," Everett said.
Bishop State will also begin offering night courses in pipe welding – the highest of the three tiers – because a lot of Ingalls' welders are structural welders looking to move up the chain, he said, and that will, in turn, free up lower-skilled jobs to backfill with new graduates.
Of course, understanding the two primary types of students is key to properly structuring the program, he said.
"A lot of the young students we get straight out of high school are just looking for a job, and they're not necessarily concerned with maximizing their earning potential. Then we also get a lot of older students who maybe never really gained any traction with their past efforts, and they're really looking for something they can make a career out of," Everett said.
And then there's the flip side.
"Of course, a lot of people get into (welding) not realizing all it involves – fire, extreme heat and the conditions you have to deal with – and they figure out pretty quickly it's just not for them. But I can tell you this for the ones who do have a knack for it: They'll never design a robot to put you out of work. This type of education is an investment in training for a good income, and it's a really good option for a lot of people," he said.
As for the scholarships, Thompson said Bishop State will start accepting applications Oct. 14, and the process will continue through Dec. 1, ensuring anyone who qualifies does so during the pre-registration period for the spring of 2014. The applications will be considered, however, for spring, summer and fall of 2014, she said.
In addition, Thompson said some of the Build Mobile grant funding will be used to help offset the costs of certification for students who simply cannot afford the expense, thereby, eliminating the barrier. The intention, she said, is to provide as many as 50 students with $100 toward their American Welding Society industry certification costs.
"I really want to focus on high school students who graduated, were a part of career tech at the high school level and focus on helping them continue to get certifications and move on up that (pay scale) ladder," she said, adding, "We'll also be looking at individuals who just earned a GED and want to kickstart a career as well as adults who are switching careers."
And students concerned the jobs might not be there after they've invested the time and energy in obtaining the skills need look no further than the commitment of local industry such as Ingalls and Austal, she said.
"When we have students nearing graduation (Ingalls and Austal) will come here and test them on site. If they meet the requirements, they're offered a job. It doesn't get any more streamlined than that," Thompson said. "I'm just excited we can offer this opportunity to young adults, career switchers, and others to go on and work for one of these great companies right here in the region and to give them the type of earning capacity so that they truly understand what we mean when we talk about improving their quality of life."