By Sarah Einselen For the Kokomo Tribune
---- — MONTEREY — After decades as a day laborer and a stint in an Arizona jail, Peter Helmschrott is grateful for one thing — a full-time job. But it took his last $200 to get there.
And the future of the program that helped him is in jeopardy.
Helmschrott, 36, moved back to Indiana this year after about three years trying to settle in to work in Louisiana. With little education — he dropped out of Howe Military School after ninth grade — Helmschrott started working part-time for Monterey hardware store owner Lawrence Loehmer.
“He said, ‘Man, it’s just hard to make any money at $10 an hour,’” Loehmer recalled. So Loehmer asked Helmschrott: “Did you do anything to improve what you bring to the table for somebody who’s hiring you?”
After conversations with Loehmer, Helmschrott decided to pursue training as a welder — a field he’d heard was ripe with job openings, even for people like him with barriers to employment.
He’d been arrested and sent to jail for three and a half years in Phoenix, Ariz., on a 2003 charge related to selling drugs. Since then, he’d had “doors ... just being slammed in my face left and right” when he sought work.
“I had that problem with drugs — I ended up homeless, went to prison, all that — now I’m trying to repair all my stuff, and I noticed that a lot of places were hiring guys like me for welding,” Helmschrott told the Pharos-Tribune. “It turns out that I’m good at it, and I really like it.”
Loehmer had been explaining to him the effects specialized training could have on his job prospects.
“He just did not realize that, if you do the same job, pretty soon it’s not worth what you’re making today because somebody else will come along,” said Loehmer. “You’ve got to keep advancing.”
One problem: Welding certification classes were beyond Helmschrott’s financial reach.
“Originally I wanted to get certified, but when we found that class through the [Starke] skills center, it cost a couple thousand dollars,” Helmschrott recalled. However, he “stumbled upon the Purdue Extension,” he said, which offered a basic two-week introductory welding course.
Loehmer spoke to Helmschrott as he was mulling over enrolling in the class, which met for 12 hours each week and cost in-county residents $200.
“He said, ‘Man, this is my last $200,’” Loehmer recalled.
The crash course Helmschrott was interested in was one the Purdue Extension of Pulaski County inherited from a county adult education coalition about five years ago. Between 250 and 300 students have graduated from the basic welding course in its seven-year existence, according to extension office manager Sue Rosenbaum, who has managed the course.
“It was a fantastic thing to do to learn beginning welding, to see if you like it,” Rosenbaum said. The majority of the class participants, like Helmschrott, were interested in learning to weld in order to get into the job market, she said.
The course operated out of a welding lab at Winamac Community High School. Winamac companies, including Braun Corp. and Galbreath Inc., donated the steel used during class sessions. The single time the Purdue Extension purchased the necessary steel for a class, the bill ran about $1,100.
Normally, the program “barely broke even, and that’s with having all the steel donated,” said Rosenbaum. “The economy’s so bad, we try to keep it at that very, very low price.”
Ultimately, Helmschrott decided to plunk down the $200.
During the three-hour classes, he and the other class members learned a few basic welds and received about $75 worth of welding equipment they could keep after the class wrapped up.
“I picked it up pretty quick,” said Helmschrott. “I was hungry. It was survival for me, so I think I tried a little bit harder.”
But completing the course was just the start. He needed a job. Working off of a list of companies the welding instructor supplied, he called company after company inquiring about openings.
“I waited for a while — I want to say at least a month — and I didn’t hear anything back, so I thought maybe it wasn’t going to happen because I didn’t have experience,” said Helmschrott. “Then Sabre called me up.”
Manitex Sabre Inc., a Knox company that makes liquid storage tanks, administered a basic welding test similar to the final test in the two-week welding program Helmschrott had just completed. Out of that test, Helmschrott earned an interview and then, a job.
He’s been on the job two months now, and says having to show up on time for work in the morning “does not bother me, not one bit.”
Having a steady job is “good. It’s just the way it’s supposed to be,” he said. “I don’t know how else to put it.”
The program he completed, however, has been temporarily suspended. Steel donors were burned out with having to come up with the extra steel for the program but not seeing many of the program’s graduates apply for their job openings, said Rosenbaum.
“We just decided to hold back,” Rosenbaum said. The committee of Purdue representatives and interested business owners is expected to meet before the end of the year to re-evaluate the program.
“It’s not totally dead,” she added. “It’s just, we’d have to do some revamping or have to increase the cost to be able to buy part of the steel.”
“If we had a fairy godfather that would dump a load of steel for us, we could do it,” said Rosenbaum with a small chuckle. “It’s just very up in the air right now.”