Welding program offers opportunity but also accountability
March 2013 - The mention of boot camp evokes mental images of calisthenics before dawn, rigorous physical challenges and extreme discipline. That same dedication and commitment can be applied elsewhere. At Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, Wis., students have the opportunity to attend a fast-paced welding program complete with real-world experience through coveted internship positions.
Students embark on 10 weeks of eight-hour-a-day training. They attend classes three days a week and intern one day a week. “Students cover all the same material we do in our traditionally offered courses—no shortcuts,” says Jo Ann Hall, dean, economic and workforce development at Moraine Park. “But they do it in a closed cohort of students in an accelerated timeframe. Students must successfully complete all the courses with a grade of C or better—the same as our traditional program students—and have a 98 percent attendance rate for the courses and internship.” That allows students to miss only one day of classes before they automatically fail. The idea is to have students get used to a full workday, as well as “demonstrate their dependability and reliability,” she says.
The boot camp structure stems from the collaboration of a number of groups including business partners, workforce development, community economic leaders, faculty and college administration. “This is not a program designed in isolation by Moraine Park staff,” Hall says, adding development of grant proposals and continual program development also are joint efforts.
Another component unique to the boot camp program is employers’ participation in selecting participants for internships through a competitive process. Perspective students meet with partner companies to be selected for one of 15 available slots. By being involved in the interview process, employers are invested in not only the program itself but also the individuals being interviewed.
The Wisconsin Covenant Foundation and a U.S. Department of Labor TAACCCT1 grant are funding the instructional part of the boot camp program over the next three years, covering what normally would cost each student $1,800 in tuition, fees, books and supplies. But students still have to invest in their internship participation. “We hold the students accountable for their success and participation,” Hall says. “If they are selected through the internship process, students are required to pay $500 up front to participate. If they successfully complete the program, 75 percent of that money is returned to them upon completion.”
Staunch steering committee
Choosing the right curriculum is crucial in ensuring students leave the program equipped to join the workforce. Moraine Park has a steering committee consisting of business partners, college faculty and administration. The business partners helped the school determine the final curriculum and courses before the boot camp structure was finalized. “The faculty also meets with employer representatives several times during the boot camp as part of the internship evaluation,” Hall says. “During those meetings, faculty are evaluating the success of the intern, but also the success of the program and ensuring the course competency requirements have not changed.”
The committee meets every two months and businesses provide feedback on curriculum content, course locations, internship structures and program schedules. They also provide Moraine Park with input on participant selection criteria and screening tools.
To experience a realistic work environment, students are required to work in teams on projects. “The internship experience requires the student to apply the skills learned in the classroom on real customer parts,” Hall says.
The program structure and curriculum ensure students are qualified, but convincing potential students to apply is a separate challenge. “There is a stigma related to the field of welding and fabrication,” Hall says. “It’s viewed as dirty and heavy work, which in some respects is very true. But getting the message across that there are good paying jobs that require an individual with strong technical, interpersonal and problem-solving skills is key to helping change that perception.
“We also think the introduction of virtual welding equipment will help draw attention from the younger population,” she says. “It provides insight and immediate feedback through computer technologies, while simulating the welding environment—hopefully helping individuals make a good career choice much earlier ... It will teach the younger generations learning styles through gaming and simulation, offering the self-paced, immediate feedback situation they have become accustomed to.”
The relationship between perception and reality is delicate. More and more students are entering welding programs around the country with the hopes of higher paying positions requiring certain skills. “Unfortunately, we’ve found several employers requiring a high amount of skill/training on day one of employment, but still offering low wages for these [highly sought after] skills. So that’s not helping the overall perception.”
Hall also suggests there is a disconnect in the marketplace between high-value jobs and lower wages. “If these are high demand jobs, then they should be able to easily transfer from one employer to the next as market conditions change,” she says. It’s in an employer’s best interest to assure its workers that their skills and expertise are appreciated. FFJ
1For information about the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program, visit http://www.doleta.gov/taaccct/.