Welding school’s custom curriculum gains notice: Institution counts on business-to-business contacts

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Seeking to take advantage of a growing statewide welder shortage, the area’s first school specializing in advanced welding opened this month.

Photon School of Welding Inc. Director Charles Garinger and a silent partner have invested more than $300,000 to open the school at West 84th Street and Zionsville Road. The operation is financed through the founders’ savings and a loan from National City Bank.

It opened this month in a 6,000-squarefoot facility with a capacity of 52 welding booths.

Many in the industry say the Photon School launch comes at a good time. Mayor Bart Peterson is so concerned about the shortage of welders and other tradesman, he has examined the possibility of a building-trades charter school.

Average weekly wages for welders nationwide increased almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 2004 hourly wages ranging from $14 for an inexperienced welder to $28 or more for a journeyman. During the same time, the number of certified welders nationally has dropped 10 percent, to about 576,000.

The average age of welders is now 54, and on the rise. The U.S. Labor Bureau predicts that, by 2010, demand for skilled welders might outstrip supply by 200,000, with 8,000 of those unfilled positions projected in Indiana.

The welder shortage is part of a broader scarcity of skilled-trades workers. Ironworkers, machinists, sheet-metal workers, plumbers, pipe fitters and boilermakers are all in great demand worldwide as production of industrial machinery continues at record levels.

While some manufacturing is shipped offshore, many jobs that require welding have stayed domestic. That, coupled with continued American industrial expansion, has put great pressure on the U.S. market.

A worker can be taught to weld in a couple of hours, but it takes years to master the craft. With 140 types of welds depending on the material being welded and the angle and temperature of the weld, it is considered one of the most skilled trades.

Welding is a job not easily automated, with both new construction and repairs on infrastructure like bridges and buildings requiring judgment a robot doesn’t possess.

Garinger hopes to attract 140 to 180 students a year to the Photon school, which is offering programs that range from 30 hours to 920 hours. Photon can also send instructors to area businesses to train a work force on site.

Photon, a for-profit venture, is not competing with Ivy Tech Community College or other area vocational programs, insisted Garinger, who has 40-plus years of experience as a welder and welding instructor.

“We have a custom curriculum,” said Garinger, whose experience includes a stint at General Motors Corp. and as the vocational education coordinator at Delta College in Midland, Mich. “We emphasize specific skills needed to find and do a job, with extra emphasis put on testing and certification.”

Garinger said he moved to central Indiana more than 14 years ago due to better career opportunities in welding. He has worked locally for military and aerospace engine maker Pratt & Whitney and as a contractor and educational consultant for several companies.

Wally Brant, who serves on the board of the McKenzie Career Center in Lawrence Township, said Photon should be a strong addition to current offerings in welding training.

“The Photon School takes training to the next level,” said Brant, who also is president and CEO of locally based Indiana Oxygen, which designs and sells welding equipment. “They can train on things like NASA and building code specifications. What Photon offers is like a master’s degree compared to a bachelor’s degree.”

Photon officials have begun to network with area companies that employ welders, asking them what their needs are, and several students have already enrolled. Garinger said some companies from outside the state have also shown interest in using Photon to better train and certify their welders.

“Photon is going about this the right way, building business-to-business relationships and targeting industry-specific needs,” Brant said.

The school is signing up students while finalizing staff and programming. Garinger will start with three instructors, but hopes to expand to six to handle the individualized curriculum.

Photon is offering its own financing program for tuition, but is also applying to become eligible for federal Pell and other educational grant programs.

“I see so much growth and development here, and it’s going to be here for at least 20 years,” Garinger said.

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