July 10, 2012
Jaime Shaker, head instructor at Calumet Welding Center, is driven and tough. His goal is to push each student to strive for excellence and reject the notion that good enough is good enough.
During business hours at Calumet Welding Center (CWC), Griffith, Ind., a constant stream of student welders, professional welders, and weld inspectors bustle from end to end, in and out of the center’s 40 welding booths. There’s not a lot of chatter or standing around. Instead, persistent buzzing sounds echo throughout, and bright, flickering arc rays burst out of each booth.
If you blink you might miss him. After all, teaching while maintaining a real-world atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to downtime or casual socializing. In other words, you won’t find head instructor Jaime Shaker sitting at a desk drinking coffee and waiting for the work to come to him. Students know that if he’s not yet in their booth watching, he’ll be there eventually. And when he is there, he’s hands-on. He’s driven, he’s tough, and his goal is to push each welder to strive for excellence and reject the notion that good enough is good enough.
When business partners Larry Kondrat and John Korienek moved Calumet Testing Services, their professional weld testing and certification business, to its current facility in Griffith in 2001, they both learned quickly that the area was starved for welding talent. After fielding calls from area customers who were hurting for skilled welders and from people wanting to come to the business and learn the trade, they saw an opportunity to open an intense-training center geared toward quality hands-on instruction with the goal of securing individuals with employment. The benefits for the company were twofold. First, the more welders they could supply to their customers, the more welding their customers could perform. The more welding that was being performed, the greater was the need for weld inspection and testing.
Second, both men saw a need to offer the area, particularly high school students, an alternative career outlet than what was already available.
“We wanted something that would train these kids to do something constructive. They pretty much removed the industrial arts from the high schools,” said Kondrat, president of Calumet Testing Services.
That was a move that, quite frankly, never made much sense to either Kondrat or Korienek. After all, Griffith is a stone’s throw away from industry-heavy Chicago, a BP refinery, and the Gary, Ind., steel mills. In other words, it’s an industrial hotbed with opportunities for workers, particularly welders, to make a good living. But that message wasn’t being relayed to area high school kids.
“We would go to the high school career night and kids would walk right past us. I’d ask them why they wanted to go to college, and they’d respond with, ‘Because I want to get a good job and make a lot of money.’ They would walk right past the pipefitters, the ironworkers, and the boilermakers, guys that are knocking down $40 an hour. I don’t know what these kids consider as good jobs and a lot of money,” Kondrat added.
In 2009, when they added a weld training center to their existing facility, they needed a no-nonsense instructor who was tough enough to enforce rules and demand student accountability; smart enough to teach everything from simple math to complicated weld passes; a good enough welder to get in the booth and teach by example; and compassionate enough to establish a trusting mentor relationship with students. The last thing they wanted it to become, Kondrat explained, was a glorified diploma mill, where students were qualified only on paper.
Instead, they wanted an intense training program to address their customers’ nagging welder shortage problem. To do this they needed an experienced instructor who knew how to weld and knew how to teach it. One couldn’t exist without the other, and they knew early on in their hunt that guy was Jaime Shaker.
It was never in Shaker’s plan to become a welder, much less a welding teacher.
The former Marine had never even considered the trade until he lost his job in the dot-com field. Welding presented itself to him at a time when his life was in flux. His introduction to welding was, in his words, by accident. But quickly he found that he had a talent for it. The only problem was, he was way behind everyone else.
“My peers had already been doing it for 10 years at least, so I really had to catch up if I wanted to balance things out somewhat. For the next couple of years I committed to do nothing but welding. I was either welding, watching somebody weld, or reading about welding. I was all about it,” Shaker explained.
The idea of becoming an instructor presented itself when Shaker observed a high number of potential instructors interviewing at another facility for an assistant position and failing welding and aptitude tests. He knew he could do better and gave it a shot. He got it and that eventually led to a second-shift instructor. The next thing he knew, he was running the facility.
Kondrat had heard of Shaker and knew he was the man for their new welding center. This became more apparent after the interview process when other interviewees were unable to pass a weld test. Shaker, on the other hand, entered with quiet confidence and a toughness that Kondrat and Korienek knew they needed.
“When Jaime walked in for his first interview, we just said, ‘This is the guy.’ He had this no-nonsense attitude. We had a lot of instructor interviews that went horribly. We got serious business out of Jaime from day one, and that’s what we liked about him,” Kondrat explained.
Shaker was hired in 2009, and in front of him stood the daunting task of starting a training program from scratch. The philosophy was simple: small class sizes—no more than 15 per session—a chance at an AWS certification, and, if all goes well, a job at the end of the tunnel.
The curriculum’s focus was on the needs of area industry—heavy plate, structural, and pressure vessel welding in a variety of orientations but mostly out of position and using multiple passes.
The partners wanted to keep things generic enough to give welders a good foundation of skills, but challenging enough that they could pass weld tests and be able to do more than production weld in a flat position.
And then there was enforcing the soft skills. Spotty attendance, tardiness, disrespect, and poor work ethic would not be tolerated. Shaker asks that students be open to learn, able to show up on time every day, and be willing to work hard. The rest was up to him.
After the booths were assembled and the paperwork taken care of, the school and Shaker were ready to accept students. And they came; some as beginners and others with a little experience. While students with varying experience levels might be grouped in the same class, they are not expected to move at the same pace. Shaker wanted to make it a point to ensure everyone would be challenged appropriate to their experience level.
“There is a syllabus, but not everyone follows it the same way. I don’t like to punish a guy who perhaps is doing very well by holding him back when he could be going on to more challenging things. On the flip side, I don’t like to punish a guy by moving him on to something that’s harder if perhaps he just needs another day or two on something.”
Since it’s opening, the school has done a little bit to market itself to the area, but has relied mostly on student successes. From the get-go, Shaker knew that no amount of marketing would take the place of a positive buzz from none other than his former students, who have served as his driving force. If his welders couldn’t hack it in the real world, it would quickly put a halt to area companies hiring his students or prospective students enrolling in the program.
“They say if you can’t do, you teach. Well, I don’t find that to be true in this industry. If these guys can’t go out there and pass weld tests and find employment, they’re not going to come back, their friends aren’t going to come here, and employers are not going to recommend my students.”
Being a weld instructor is much more than explaining the X’s and O’s of gas metal arc welding or sharing tips about how to weld a pipe out of position; Shaker has to wear many hats in addition to the one labeled “teacher.” He’s a disciplinarian, motivator, mentor, and friend. The ability to reach students comes with understanding where they’ve come from and what drives them.
The boundaries that Shaker sets, said Korienek, are exactly what students need, serving as an eye-opener for the future or a wake-up call for the present.
“Everyone likes having structure, and Shaker makes people treat their education like a job. When they get out of there and find a job, they have an idea of what it’s like already.”
Shaker speculates that there are two types of students who enroll at CWC. The first are the ones who have been exposed to welding all of their lives. Typically, those types of students tend to be young and lacking in life experience.
“They’re not really used to being challenged. I try to let them know that the world owes them nothing. They have to go out and make it on their own, whether they belong to a great company or a trade union. In the end, it’s every man for himself.
“I run a pretty tight ship. It’s one of those things where if you can’t hack it, you can’t stay. But they want to stay if they enjoy it and want to do it,” Shaker said bluntly.
The second type are the ones who, for whatever reason, have lost their way in life and enroll in CWC in search of something or as a last resort.
“Either they took a wrong turn or life just happened. This is the one thing that will help them shift. I just like being a part of that, and I want to give people hope. You see people change their lives around pretty quickly.”
One such former student, recalled Renae Kondrat, CWC director, had been released from jail just before he enrolled at CWC. When this former student came back to CWC for a visit, he couldn’t contain his pride at the fact that he now had a job where he earned an actual paycheck.
“Jaime taught him; he found him a great welding job. Next thing we know, we’re training a few of his family members and friends,” Renae explained.
Shaker emphasizes that no one is judged on the basis of their past, but on the way they approach their craft. Anyone who shows up willing to put their past behind them, learn, and do exactly as Shaker demands has a place at CWC.
“I let them know that I know nothing about them, so now’s the time for them to be the super-you and that’s all I’ll ever know. Some guys are trying to reinvent themselves, and this is a good place for that,” Shaker said.
His ability to teach a valuable trade and mentor life skills resonate with students and co-workers. One former student, Michael McClain, was a beginner when he enrolled at CWC. In nine weeks’ time he was able to pass X-ray tests for both 3G and 4G plate welds. Today he is an apprentice pipefitter at Local 597. He credits Shaker for presenting information in a way that was easy to follow and going above and beyond to make students believe in themselves.
“He brings the best out in people, teaches them skills, and helps develop a certain attitude needed to be successful,” McClain wrote.
These qualities are not lost on Shaker’s co-workers.
“He’s like gravity—people are just drawn to him,” said Ryan Kondrat, assistant welding instructor. “He’s intense because he doesn’t want anyone to go out into the real world and get trampled. The guy is outstanding. He has a genuine interest not just in their welding education, but in their lives too. He believes we have to do everything we can not to send these people back out on the street with nothing.”
For Shaker, his motivations are simply to help bolster the area’s welding workforce and to show people what they are capable of. It’s more than just a day job, it’s a personal quest.
“I have a genuine interest in these guys. They’re not just a number. It bothers me when they don’t do well; I take that home with me. There are some great opportunities out there for truly skilled welders, and I’ve seen so many people change their lives around in a really short amount of time.
“I know what welding did for me and how it saved me. That’s what I see.”
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