Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Prospects bright for U.P. welding jobs

By ANGIE JACKSON

Capital News Service

LANSING – Opportunities are bright for welders in the Upper Peninsula, according to regional businesses and Michigan Works!

That’s because demand is outstripping supply in that high-unemployment area of the state.

The U.P.’s jobless rate was 11.3 percent in August, according to Department of Energy Labor & Economic Growth.

Christina Henderson, director of the Delta County Economic Development Alliance, said there’s a steady need for welders in the U.P.

“When I’m out talking to companies, welding always comes up as a skill set that they need,” she said. “That’s what we hear the most from our manufacturers. That’s the area they’re looking to fill.”

Jim Ciminskie, an economics instructor at Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba, said the college’s one-year welding program prepares students to meet the demand, but the program is “booked solid.”

Maurice Boomer, a welding instructor at the college, said people with a one-year welding certification can enter the workforce at an average of $9 to $12 hourly. Average yearly earnings for welders in Michigan is $28,964, according to the college,

Ciminskie said, “The college can’t turn out people fast enough. I’ve talked to some people in the Upper Peninsula who are saying, ‘If you can find me a welder, I’ll hire them today.’”

That seems to be the case for a company in the eastern U.P.

Northern Wings Repair in Newberry does specialized machining and welding for aviation production, and it’s having trouble filling six positions.

“We’re looking for people qualified in welding, machining and project management,” said operations manager Karl Gustafson.

“We’re also looking for people to train, get them certified and build their careers as well,” Gustafson said, noting that in Newberry, with a population of roughly 2,000, location makes it tough to find qualified workers.

“There’s not a lot of amenities here that you’d have in many other towns, but we do attract people who want quality jobs,” he said.

Gustafson said welders have recently moved from other parts of the state and elsewhere, including Montana, to work for the company.

Henderson predicts that the demand for welders will continue because companies have “projects in the pipeline” that will provide jobs.

One example is Marinette Marine Corp., a shipbuilding company in Marinette, Wis., that hires workers from neighboring Menominee County. The company is one of two finalists for a contract to build combat ships for the Navy.

The winner is expected to be announced in December, said Henderson, who added that there’s a lot of optimism surrounding the project’s potential.

“That would hire hundreds of people,” she said.

And smaller shipyards, such as Basic Marine Inc. in Escanaba, also provide opportunities for welders.

Controller Terrie Peters said four positions are available. The company looks for specific skills sets and generally doesn’t provide training, expect in unique situations, such as when someone shows potential but can’t pass the welding test the first time, she added.

“We’ve had a lot of guys who come in and can’t pass our welding test,” Peters said. “What is ideal is if the person can read blueprints to visualize and lay the project out, put it together and build it.

“Some guys come in with a knack for it, who are very good. Others come in with years of training at vocational schools and still can’t compete,” she said.

Boilermakers Union Local 169 in Gladstone offers a four-year apprenticeship program that provides hands-on experience as well as classroom time.

Jim Calouette, assistant business manager for the union, said the program is always open to workers, with a preference in those who have a welding certification.

On average, the local apprenticeship program takes up to 10 people each year and helps them find jobs in the industry, such as at power plants, nuclear plants, paper mills and copper mines. Although jobs are available in the U.P., Calouette said workers should be willing to travel regularly.

We’re a pretty good niche. We need welders to do fabricating and reinstalling. We travel all over the country sometimes,” Calouette said, noting that boilermaker projects can last from eight hours to multiple years.

Gustafson said that while the U.P.’s remoteness may be a concern for potential workers, the region has much to offer.

“If people like challenging work that’s along the standards of any large corporation and want to live on a lake, go skiing and enjoy the outdoors, then this is the place for them,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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