Welding program tackles veteran unemployment rate in Michigan
March 15, 2013
National unemployment rates for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans are high and the state of Michigan is toward the top of list of states with the highest number of unemployed veterans. The Merrill Institute of Welding is working to combat that by providing unemployed veterans with welding, fabricating, and leadership skills.
The men and women who entered into active duty after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have been hailed as real-life heroes for their contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after hanging up the camouflage and combat boots, these very same veterans are having difficulty finding employment as civilians.
Merrill Fabricators, Alma, Mich., a fabricator that supplies custom components for customers in the automotive, construction, defense, aerospace, and automated systems industries, is doing its part to reverse the unemployment trend among veterans in Michigan and give them valuable skills that will last a lifetime.
Jason North, CWE/CWI, has been at Merrill for 18 years and has worked in a variety of roles at the company. At first, finding skilled welders wasn’t an issue. Over time, however, North said it became increasingly difficult to find workers with the necessarily skill sets.
“As our work load increased we gained new customers every year, and we were unable to keep up due to the work force that we had,” North explained.
That’s when the company decided to take matters into its own hands and open an in-house weld training facility. The Merrill Institute of Welding, opened in October 2011, is American Welding Society (AWS)-accredited in Schools Excelling through National Skills Standards Education (SENSE) Levels I, II, and III but focuses on Level I training, as it provides the necessary baseline of skills that potential employers can then build on.
The program is an intense, 10-week, roughly 400-hour, hands-on experience that provides 10 students with the tools to start a career in welding and fabrication. North covers all of the major welding and cutting processes as well as weld symbol and blueprint reading.
Chad Sibley, contract administrator for Merrill, helped secure grant money from local organizations to help fund the program. A grant he secured from the Department of Labor, which was funneled through Macomb Community College, Warren, Mich., and Entech Staffing Solutions, Troy and Grand Blanc, Mich., went toward funding three sessions for local unemployed workers. The first three sessions were a success, with a graduation rate of more than 90 percent. At that point, the company knew it had something special on its hands.
USA Today reported a 9.9 percent unemployment rate among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in 2012—a slight improvement compared to a 12.1 percent unemployment rate in 2011. With both wars winding down and the gradual pull-out of troops, the paper reported that more than 300,000 veterans will leave the military each of the next four years.
Veteran unemployment rates vary state by state, but Michigan in particular has seen radically high unemployment rates among its veterans. The Detroit Free Press quoted Michigan Governor Rick Snyder telling the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference in May 2012 that of the states’ nearly 700,000 military veterans, 30 percent of them at the time were unemployed.
Mark Johnston, director of training at the Merrill Institute of Welding, and a veteran of the Marine Corps., knows how difficult it can be to rejoin civilian life. The problem veterans have, he said, is quantifying their military skills and experience to potential employers.
“People that come from the military have a hard time explaining what their skills are in a résumé. That puts the challenge on the organization to find a match for their skills and experience, which can be difficult. The support structure out there to help our vets find places to work, like Merrill, is seriously lacking,” Johnston said.
Discipline, teamwork, accountability, and focus are all qualities that Johnston said are engrained in boot camp and ones that many employers, including those in the skilled trades, are looking for.
When the Michigan Economic Development Corp. heard about Merrill’s in-house weld program, they approached Sibley about creating sessions for up to 30 veterans funded through a program called Community Ventures. With Michigan’s high unemployment rate among veterans and Merrill’s success in training unemployed workers in welding and fabrication, it seemed like a fitting partnership.
Overwhelming support from civic agencies, vendor companies, and the Merrill management team made the vets-only program seem like a great idea on paper. Now all that was left was to find the right people to fill the class.
Nick Kraft, recruiting manager at the Merrill Institute of Welding, took a grassroots approach to reaching interested veterans. He contacted armories, recruiting offices, and veterans’ reps; purchased newspaper ads; and hung fliers. The effort needed to be somewhat controlled to reach the right individuals.
“If we have funding for 30 people total, you’d almost hate to have 500 veterans interested. You have a potential for a positive program to turn negative,” Kraft noted.
All applicants went through a screening process, and select individuals then went through an assessment process that included reading, writing, math, and hand-eye coordination tests followed by an interview. Because of the intensity of the program, North and Sibley needed to ensure each applicant was committed to finishing the program.
“We’re not looking for people who want something to do because they don’t have anything else better going on at the moment. We want people who legitimately want a career in welding, and that’s where they see themselves in two, five, or 10 years’ time,” Kraft said.
The first veterans-only program opened in August 2012. From the get-go, North noticed a difference in attitudes and behaviors of his veteran students versus the civilian students. They were driven, had an instant comradery with one another, and were self-starters.
“I think the work ethic is already instilled in them. From being in the military, they understand how to fall into a routine, and they know what hard work is. Not that other people don’t, but I find it easier being the instructor in the vets’ classes because you don’t have to do anything to get them motivated,” North said.
With the second of three sessions nearly complete, North and the team at Merrill have received positive feedback from employers who have hired graduates from the first session. They have even included additional leadership training once a week to equip veterans with skills and training that will enhance their résumé.
The third session, slated to begin in late April, has already garnered substantial interest from the next wave of veterans, sparking conversations within the school on how to grow the weld education program as a whole to make it available to even more people.
But for now, North and the team at Merrill have embraced their role, in helping folks who have sacrificed so much.
“These guys have put their lives on the line, and I have had some individuals that have seen some heavy combat. I sit back and listen to their stories, and I think how fortunate we are to be in such a great country,” North said.