As the auto plants in Michigan began to shut down, Mary Ellington knew she needed to learn how to do something else.
Now a machinist at Temcor in Rincon, she’s also learning how to be a welder through Savannah Technical College — without having to leave her current place of employment.
“I decided to take a welding class when I found out it was offered out here to Effingham to expand my career and goals here at Temcor,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Savannah Tech being in Effingham, I probably wouldn’t be doing the welding course, because that’s a long drive.”
Savannah Tech and Temcor leaders unveiled a new welding lab on the plant’s floor that will help train the next wave of welders.
“It’s been a long time in coming,” said Leland Sanders, vice president of manufacturing for Temcor. “It’s also going to do good things for other industries, such as EFACEC, Georgia-Pacific and Doncasters. The citizens of Effingham County have an opportunity to go to school here in Effingham County rather than having to drive into Savannah.”
Neil Brabham, the head of STC’s welding and joining technology department, cited a 2006 Wall Street Journal article that said there will be 100,000 unfilled welding jobs by 2010.
The tradition of handing down welding knowledge from generation to generation was broken by the current generation, who began to veer toward other skills, Brabham said.
“All the family members (who knew welding) either retired or died,” he said.
There’s a dearth of welders versed in plastics welding, according to Brabham, and other technological advances haven’t supplanted the need for welding.
“Robotics has not replaced it. It’s helped it, but it’s not replaced it,” he said. “You’ve still go to have the human element, no matter what.”
STC has set up 15 welding stations and students will be taught by Terry Edwards and Theodore Byrd. Many unions recognize STC’s diploma as counting toward 18 months of training toward journeyman status, according to Brabham.
STC President Dr. Kathy Love said the program shows that manufacturing is not dead.
“The well-paying jobs are here to stay in manufacturing,” she said.
Even as cutbacks in some businesses — the closing of Great Dane and layoffs at JCB — take place, more students are trying to get into Brabham’s classes.
“My enrollment has increased exponentially in the last three years,” he said. “I had to turn 35 people away. That bothered me.”
The big demand for welders, Brabham said, is in the energy field, particularly in biofuel and nuclear power plants.
STC’s welding programs range from a diploma, which takes two years, to a technical certificate of credit, which is a six-month program.
“We teach the basics,” Brabham said. “If I know where a student wants to work, we can put an emphasis on that in the final stages of training. It’s worked out pretty well so far.”
The classes started July 8, with six students enrolled in the class at Temcor. Another 56 welding students are enrolled at STC’s Savannah campus.
“Good quality welders are one of the hardest skill sets to find,” Sanders said. “We’ve struggled for the entire nine years we’ve been here to find good quality welders. This program is not just a benefit to Temcor but to any industry that employs welders because they are hard to find.”
Welders are sought not just in production facilities — such as Temcor’s — but also in maintenance, Sanders added.
“There is a significant need,” he said.
Ellington got her first crack at welding on Wednesday night and with Temcor’s production schedule — “24-7, 12-hour shifts,” she said — it would be impossible for her to take the class in Savannah.
“I’m really thrilled and happy they got it up and running out here,” she said. “I’ve been putting school off for a little while. I’ve been waiting for a little break. We stay pretty busy here.
“When I first moved to Savannah, this was about the only machine shop that was hiring and was willing to take a chance on me. They’ve been good to me here. They’ve given me on the job training and expanded my career, as far as job knowledge. Now the next step up for me is to become a welder.”