The end of the (welding) world as we know it?

Connecticut may face changes in its vocational-technical welding programs

June 26, 2003
By: Stephanie Vaughan

The end of manufacturing is near for the state of Connecticut, some fear.

Many across the state whose livelihoods depend on welding—shop owners, instructors, and welding equipmentmakers—are waiting to hear if all but one of the state's vocational-technical welding programs will be eliminated as the result of state budget cuts.

Vocational-technical welding programs in Connecticut operate with funding from the state government, and last December the state decided to cut nearly all of these programs.

This prompted a response from William Garner, a welding technology instructor at Howell Cheney Technical High School in Manchester, Conn., the only school with a welding program safe from state budget cuts.

Garner, along with welding equipmentmakers and fabricators in the state, sent letters to the state legislature with the hope of getting the decision overturned and to other equipmentmakers and fabricators across the nation to inform them of this situation.

And they were successful—at least initially.

Connecticut Sen. Edith Prague introduced a bill to keep all welding programs operating. The bill was approved, and all of the programs were included in the state's budget.

However, Connecticut Governor John Rowland vetoed the budget, saying more cuts needed to be made. Currently, the state legislature is in an emergency session to reconfigure the budget to get the governor's approval. A decision is expected by the end of the month.

"There were a lot of 'goodies' in the budget, and not just the welding programs," said Julie Cammarata, policy director at the Office of Policy and Management of the Connecticut Office of the Secretary.

Why the Cuts?

Those in Connecticut whose livelihoods depend on welding feel that cutting the vocational-technical welding programs will not be good for the state, and because of this, they question why the decision to cut nearly all of the programs was made in the first place.

"I don't think that the people making this decision understand that welding is used in business today," Garner said. "Connecticut can't survive on travel because people who come to the East Coast go to other states for tourism. Connecticut is so dependent on manufacturing: How else do they plan to build bridges, power plants, and pipelines?"

John Emmerson, president of Magnatech Ltd. Partnership, East Granby, Conn., echoed Garner's sentiment in a June 5 letter he wrote to the superintendent of the Connecticut Vocational Technical School System, the state's Department of Education commissioner, and the governor:

"As a business owner, I understand that the state has to balance its budget and cuts have to be made," Emmerson wrote. "However, I think it is extremely shortsighted to make cuts disproportionately deep in the welding technology programs. You may or may not be aware that Connecticut is the home to a great number of high-tech welding equipment manufacturers and services, from laser and electron beam to the specialized equipment for pipe and tube welding, which Magnatech manufactures. Much of this equipment, however, still requires skilled welders to operate it.

"It seems that everything that the state Senate and Congress are trying to do right now to balance the budget only serves to make it more difficult for manufacturers in Connecticut," Emmerson wrote. "It may be that Connecticut can survive as a service economy, but it does not obviate the need for skilled manual welders.

"There is constant talk about upgrading Connecticut's 'infrastructure.' What does this really mean? Much of it means building roads, which requires new bridges, replacing bridges, adding a new wing onto the airport, upgrading power generation transmission, etc. All of these projects involve welding, most of them at the actual job site. Where are you going to get the welders for these projects? Import them from South Carolina?" he wrote.

Cammarata said the state recognizes these concerns and has taken them into consideration.

"We've all been looking at ways to cut funds," she said. "With regard to the vocational-technical programs, their primary mission is to prepare high school students to enter the work force. At this point, we have decided to close the welding programs that are not geared primarily toward high school students. We recognize that welders are needed, but we need to preserve the mission of our state agencies. When you've been cutting steadily for two years and you still have a deficit, you have to take a close look at your mission."

The question still remains, though, where the welders will come from for projects in Connecticut, Garner said in his letter to Connecticut lawmakers.

"By Howell Cheney Tech being the only welding program left in the state, the very most our shop could graduate each year would be 18 students," Garner wrote. "That leaves the state with a shortfall of 265 welding technicians with each passing year. Multiply that by 10 years and you have a shortfall of 2,650 welders. There already is a shortage of skilled welders, and this will compound that problem severely. Where does the state expect to come up with qualified welders? Will we pay a premium to import them into Connecticut from another state, from a state that does a better job of training its young work force? Will we be able to get the work done at all? Will our manufacturing companies be willing to stay in Connecticut if they cannot find and hire qualified, certified welders to do the work involved in their business, or will they move to another state where they can find the skilled craftsmen they require to keep their company successful and competitive?"

Cammarata said she feels that the closure of these programs—which she said is temporary—will be something that the state will be able to deal with.

"It's going to affect the number of skilled welders, that's for sure," Cammarata said. "But I think we'll have enough to finish our projects if it means they're coming from outside Connecticut. It's all about supply and demand."

Gary Kelman, assistant director (adult) of the Connecticut Regional Vocational-Technical School System, agrees that it's possible to recruit workers from other states if the need presents itself, but noted that there's a price to pay for it, as he sees it as difficult to find good-quality workers who will want to move to the state, where the cost of living is more expensive than in other states.

He sees vocational-technical education as an important opportunity for adults that shouldn't be cut from the budget.

Adult education courses offered through the vocational-technical school system in Connecticut are less expensive than other courses offered through colleges, and they focus specifically on the coursework, such as welding, and job networking, instead of requiring general education courses to fulfill training requirements, Kelman said.

"The majority of courses are one-year from 8 a.m. to 2 or 2:30 p.m., which is beneficial for a lot of adults because they can still get a second-shift job but get in a full day of training," he said. "If adult programs are closed, it's going to eliminate the opportunity to help adults get a job or make a career change."

A Nationwide Crisis

While Connecticut awaits the state's decision whether or not vocational-technical welding programs will be preserved in the budget for next year, other welding programs across the country are and have been dealing with cutbacks too.

"It's not just Connecticut," Emmerson said. "Connecticut is just an extreme case of what's happening everywhere."

In an age of computer-related fields, Web site designing occupations, and data processing jobs, Emmerson said he feels that manufacturing is getting lost in the shuffle because it's not one of the most attractive fields to get into today according to mainstream perception.

"The perception is that you have to go to college," Emmerson said. "It's a shame that parents don't realize there are other opportunities for their kids. I don't think people understand how much a welder can make."

In addition to the salary potential in the welding industry, the types of jobs someone can have related to welding are varied and numerous, from becoming a welder to a welding engineer to a metallurgist, for example, according to Emmerson.

"The really sad fact is the complete lack of understanding of the importance of welding and its potential as a career for young men or women," he wrote in his June 5 letter. "Anyone can be trained for data entry in three months, but what does a data entry clerk command for an income? Welding is a craft which requires technical training and an apprenticeship to gain the appropriate skills. Even a poorly skilled welder can command more than most manufacturing craftspeople—as much or more than a good machinist. A good welder can make more at age 25 than a 20-year Pratt & Whitney midlevel engineer makes after 20 years of service.

"The fact that guidance counselors are not making young people aware of the possibilities of a career in welding is probably partly the fault of the industry itself," Emmerson wrote.

Sal Rizzo, president of Salsco Inc., Cheshire, Conn., agrees that it's important, no matter what the state decides, that the message gets out that manufacturing training can be just as valuable an opportunity as college.

"Not every high school student goes on to college, and it is vitally important to provide those students with an alternative which will benefit them, benefit Connecticut's manufacturers, and the state itself," he wrote in a letter to Gov. Rowland.

Cammarata maintains that the state of Connecticut understands these needs, and that its commitment to the welding industry in the state stands, even if welding programs are cut temporarily.

"We certainly understand that this is an issue in the welding industry and that welders are important," she said, "and you can bet that we'll reinstate those programs when we can, but right now we're in a fiscal crisis."

Stephanie Vaughan

Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer