Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 7, 2013

Built to last

Welding students creating fence for city

By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer

— Welding is not a job for the faint of heart. But for kids who don’t mind the acrid smoke, flying sparks and metal-on-metal grinding, it’s a ticket to prosperity.

That’s the message that Kokomo Career Center welding teacher Brian Mikesell has for his students, who are learning real world skills by building a custom-designed fence for the city of Kokomo.

It’s another partnership between Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight and Kokomo Center Schools Superintendent Jeff Hauswald that is both a way for the city to upgrade a major infrastructure project and lend work experience to about 20 students.

In the Career Center welding shop during the 90-minute periods Mikesell’s students are working, it’s all noise, punctuated by sparks from grinders, white-hot flares from welding torches and the perfectly controlled fury of the plasma cutter.

The students are churning out posts and fencing — not the stuff people put around their yards, but the kind of fencing that would stop a car. The city buys the materials and pays the school for the use of its machines, and the kids go to work.

“The city is able to stay local, and to utilize students as workers,” Hauswald said. “It’s a win-win.”

There’s a shortage of welders across the U.S. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates the number of welding jobs nationwide should grow by 15 percent by 2020.

That’s after years of decline, as the auto industry turned to automated welding. Much of the expected growth will be on projects to repair the nation’s aging infrastructure and in the energy sector, experts predict.

Mikesell said students are graduating from local high schools and quickly moving through nine months of welding school to good-paying jobs.

Two of his students — Western High School senior Adam Shepherd and Taylor senior Cody Damewood — are getting ready to go to the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology in Troy, Ohio, to start their careers.

Damewood wants to work at a nuclear power plant in eastern Tennessee, where a family member works, and Shepherd hopes to eventually open his own fabrication shop.

“You can just build stuff out of nothing,” Shepherd said. “There’s no limits to what you can do.”

City work crews are currently installing the fencing around the median islands along Apperson Way. The fencing, made of hollow steel bars welded onto specially cut steel crossbars which are bolted onto four-inch square posts, is heavy duty. Performance Powder Coating, Kokomo, and Gowdy Brothers, Kokomo, are also working on the project.

“It’s as level as the day is long,” said Mikesell of the fence.

Mikesell said some areas of the United States where the energy industry is booming are so strapped for welders that prospective employers have resorted to passing out flyers at high school football games.

“The average age of a welder today is 60 years old,” he said. “It wasn’t a popular job for a long time.”

Judging from the deft, quick movements, hammering and general flurry inside the welding shop, Mikesell’s students don’t seem to be taking their fence-building task lightly.

Welding is about building something and Wednesday, the students were putting the smoking, freshly welded fence posts into storage hoppers as fast as they could. The only pause was when they waited for material to arrive.

“It’s pretty cool,” Shepherd said. “How many high school kids can say they have their own work displayed out in front of the public?”

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com