Building a stronger welding program

Annual Welding Rodeo combines community outreach, fun, and vocational education in two-day sculpture contest

June 7, 2010
By: Don Knight

Bellingham Technical College launched its Welding Rodeo in 2002 to spur enrollment and raise its public profile. Now one of the premier welding competitions in the Pacific Northwest, the event has helped the school triple its enrollment in welding and expand its program/skill offerings.

welded clock

Old cylinder tops, valves, and scrap metal donated from local industry contribute to the Welding Rodeo's success.

Bellingham Technical College (BTC) held its 9th annual Welding Rodeo May 21 - 22, 2010, on its campus in Bellingham, Wash. First modeled after the SkillsUSA contest, the Welding Rodeo has evolved into a sculpture competition in which teams compete by creating artwork from scrap heaps of twisted steel and metal.

Thousands of people attend each year, and the finished works go up for auction at the end of the event. The auction generates scholarship funds for BTC's welding program. What started out as a skills competition has transformed into a major part of the school's — and the community's — identity.

"Bellingham isn't easy to find, but now we're on the map," said Jeré Donnelly, BTC welding instructor. "Everyone knows the Welding Rodeo. You go down to Seattle and mention it and people say, '˜Oh yeah, we know about that.' It has a life of its own now. It's amazing. And we've brought a lot of attention to this campus. A lot of people have come to this campus that didn't even know we were here."

Raising Its Profile With Local Industry

Bellingham is the last major American city on Interstate 5 before you reach the Canadian border. Located 90 miles north of Seattle, this community is known more for its picturesque vistas of Mount Baker and Bellingham Bay than as a hotbed for metalworking.

"That's one of the big things that drove the Welding Rodeo," said Donnelly, "bringing awareness to the public about the industry. As soon as you say 'welding' to some people, their faces go blank. All they think of are people that swing hammers and make sparks. Bringing people on campus and showing them this beautiful, first-class facility is important."

"It was also recruiting-oriented," said Don Anderson, BTC welding technology instructor. "In our first year, a lot of programs were on edge. When enrollment starts going down and you look at the programs ... welding wasn't growing at the time. It was scary."

Bellingham's curriculum offers three certificates: a certificate in basic welding skills, a certificate in industrial welding, and an Associate Degree in applied science — welding technology-aluminum/steel fabrication and aluminum welding, pipe welding, structural fabrication. Its training facility features 54 permanent welding booths outfitted with multiprocess and stick welding equipment and an additional 50 temporary booths to fit current demand. Enrollment has tripled since the department moved into a new facility in 2005, and the program has gained two full-time instructors for a total of four and two part-time instructors.

"We certify them to Washington Association of Building Officials (WABO) standards, which is based on AWS D1.1," said Anderson. "We morphed from there because our local industry told us they wanted more fabrication skills, more well-rounded individuals, but they also want specialization. The industries locally are primarily boat building, fabrication shops, and refineries. Refineries need pipe welders, and so we decided that we needed a full-bore pipe welding program. And the shipbuilding and repair industry here largely has gone to aluminum, so we needed an aluminum welding program. And then we have the structural steel needs. So that pretty much dictated to us that we needed to expand our program and give people hands-on training in everything."

Both Donnelly and Anderson, who founded the event together, believe that the Welding Rodeo at least partially created the visibility and excitement that has vaulted the welding program to the third-ranked program at the school (behind IT and nursing).

"I really wonder, if we didn't have the Welding Rodeo here, if we'd have this new building," said Donnelly. "I don't think we would have."

plasma cutter eagle wing

Figure 1: To make the eagle's wings, the team created a cardboard template and traced the wing pattern with a Magic MarkerĀ®. Using a plasma cutter, the artist can precisely and quickly cut out several wings.

Community Involvement at Heart of Event

The Welding Rodeo has exposed locals to the college's state-of-the-art facility and opened doors to students who may not have pursued welding as a career before, including a substantial enrollment and participation by new female welders. Some participants have even moved on to become members of the BTC staff: The winning artist from the first year's event, Mary Kuebelbeck, is now a welding instructor.

"We made a 14-foot giraffe," said Kuebelbeck. "There were five teams at the time, and the city of Bellingham purchased the giraffe. It currently sits on the library lawn and is part of the City of Bellingham's art collection."

The event has grown considerably since that first year when Kuebelbeck won. The 2010 event featured two days of action: one day of high school/college competition and one day of professional competition. As the community involvement has grown, so has participation from the industry. Local welding distributors and equipment manufacturers donate equipment and supplies and run booths at the event. Miller Electric Mfg. Co. has supplied welding, plasma cutting, and personal protection equipment for use during the competition.

"That first year we went around and begged and borrowed from different shops," said Donnelly. "This year people are throwing money at us for scholarships and letting us know that they want to be a part of the event. Shops are donating metal — they have set the stuff aside all year long. They send teams to compete. It's a great community event."

Overall, the Welding Rodeo has provided the right mix of fun and education, and it has accomplished the goals that Donnelly and Anderson set out with from day one: raise visibility and educate the public on the skill, pride, and art of one of the most important and misunderstood trades in the industry.

"When visitors come to a community technical college, we want to expose them to a real-life career," said Central Welding Supply's Marshall Judy, who heavily supports the Welding Rodeo with equipment and time and is also a BTC welding program advisory board member. "These are good-paying jobs that people can support families with and have life-long careers. The Welding Rodeo has shown the community this by [connecting with event attendees]."

Interested in organizing your own Welding Rodeo? The welding instructors at BTC will gladly share the template for their success so that other educational institutions can raise the visibility of welding in their communities. Contact BTC by following the link to the Welding Rodeo. Also use this link to view slide shows of winning artists.

Don Knight

District Manager
Miller Electric Mfg. Co.
1635 W. Spencer St.
P.O. Box 1079
Appleton, WI 54912
Phone: 800-426-4553

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