Training a New Generation of Welders

Issue 4 and Volume 113.

By Kathy Szlis, Westinghouse Nuclear Services Communications

Westinghouse, like many companies in the nuclear industry, is facing one of its most positive challenges in decades—satisfying the growing pains of this rapid resurgence with large numbers of skilled talent. With several orders for construction of AP1000 power plants in China and the U.S., and promises of more orders globally, Westinghouse has hired 3,000 workers over the past few years and from more than just the engineering ranks.

Recognizing the necessity for skilled craft workers, Westinghouse expanded its WEC Welding Institute in Rock Hill, S.C., to train more welders. WEC Welding and Machining President Jimmy Morgan told visitors during a recent open house that Westinghouse is “taking the lead in training the next generation of pipe welders to satisfy the current national shortage and demand for future energy needs.” The institute increased the number of student welding booths from 50 to 74 so that more students can be trained for welding careers.

Westinghouse plans to further increase its commitment to training welders by opening an additional welding institute next year in Chattanooga, Tenn. Future plans call for another three schools with 50 booths each in other U.S. locations.

In recruitment, the institute has begun enrolling efforts with potential welding students in southeastern high schools. It is also partnering with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in North and South Carolina to recruit military men and women for initiation into welding careers after leaving the service. The VA pays to retrain the selected candidates.

These plans will allow Westinghouse to broaden its reach to new student prospects and extend its cultivation of new generations of skilled, certified welders who will play key roles in the new plant construction planned during the next several years, and in servicing the existing nuclear fleet.

Since the WEC Welding Institute’s inception in June 2006, approximately 75 students have graduated from the program. The institute’s goal is to certify about 100 students annually. It currently has 48 students in training.

To become certified, students complete an average of five months of hands-on training at the school, after which they can take the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ (ASMEs’) welding qualification exam. If students pass the exam, they can then work as apprentices at power plants or at any facility where Westinghouse is performing welding. Several customers are actually working at the institute to prequalify the students to work during upcoming nuclear plant outages. To attain journeyman status, students complete an additional 2,000 hours of welding.

The institute and potential for a rewarding career have provided many young people direction. Some welders who were recently certified at the institute said they were undecided on a career path before someone suggested welding as a viable means to make a living. Those who have trained through the institute know they can earn great wages as welders and that specialty welders, who receive additional certification training, have the potential to triple their income.

Nicole Smith, one of a handful of female welders to go through the WEC Welding Institute, spoke favorably about her recently completed certification training. Nicole came to the WEC Welding Institute in fall 2007, knowing she would have to work 10 hours a day, four days a week at a craft that some told her would be “hard on her body.” The work, she notes, is physically demanding and comes with its own occupational hazards, despite a heavy emphasis on working safely. For the institute, Westinghouse’s WEC Welding and Machining site safety manager, Kevin Hayes, regularly monitors welding operations in the school to ensure that the student welders are wearing the proper personal protective equipment and he conducts weekly safety meetings.

While students attend the training at no cost to them, in return, the company asks for a minimum employment commitment of one year. They are not paid by the institute for training, meaning many must continue outside employment to maintain their personal financial obligations. But this, too, is an opportunity.

For example, after Nicole successfully passed her ASME welding qualification exam, she was able to work at the Cliffside Steam Station (a coal-fired plant) as an apprentice last April. Working as a welding apprentice allowed Nicole to save enough money to attend the institute during summer without the need to seek an unrelated part-time job.

Nicole’s story is similar to several others who completed training and are now on their way to rewarding welding careers. Other welders who became certified through the institute and are working full time supporting welding projects are pleased with the skills they gained through the institute, love to travel to customer sites and appreciate the opportunity to have learned a craft they can use to make a good living for their families. Customers have been pleased, as well. It is a winning situation for both new welders and the nuclear industry.

Interested companies can help by partnering with the WEC Welding Institute. Partnering with the institute is simply joining efforts to promote the school, the business relationship and the welding industry in general. The only financial investment required would be the marketing dollars contributed by both parties.

To explore becoming a partner of the WEC Welding Institute, contact Richard Frisbey, manager, WEC Welding Institute at 803-412-3231 or [email protected].