Training & Education

Self starters

By Lauren Duensing

Above: Jason North, manager of operations and industrial training, gives instruction to a group of students at the Merrill Institute.

The Merrill Institute prepares student welders for a successful career

October 2016 - Welding is one of the fastest growing professions in the United States, but employers have trouble filling open positions because they need skilled workers who are not only trained in today’s techniques but also willing to continue their education throughout their careers. Right now, such workers are scarce. 

The Merrill Institute was established in 2011 at Merrill Fabricators, Alma, Michigan. The institute offers a comprehensive American Welding Society (AWS) SENSE Level I welding program—a 12-week, 522-hour program that includes training in SMAW, GMAW, FCAW and GTAW welding processes. 

The program features training for blueprint reading, welding inspection and testing, and weld symbols and drawing interpretation. “The students learn how to set up the machines and which gases and metals to use,” says Jason North, manager of operations and industrial training. “They then apply this knowledge in our welding labs. The training is hands-on, so our students spend about 85 percent of their time in the welding labs.”


Many types of students come to Merrill to earn their AWS Certification. Some are seasoned welders looking for additional training, and others are recent high school graduates, veterans or people looking to change careers. All applicants must complete an assessment test because “we want people who want to become skilled welders and make a career out of the training they receive,” North says. The institute is also an Accredited Test Facility, and companies can send their current employees in for training, testing and certification.

Being located inside Merrill Fabricators, a 400,000-square-foot shop, provides an environment in which students clearly experience what it’s like to work in a busy facility. Students get to “see some pretty amazing and very large parts being fabricated and welded,” North says. The company performs work for several industries such as, but not limited to, mining, oil and gas, automotive, aerospace and defense. “In addition to the performance tests that are required in the AWS SENSE, we train our students on simulated fabrications to create a very experiential learning environment,” he says.

Students are trained by experienced fabricators who have worked in the industry for years and are AWS Certified Welding Inspectors and AWS Certified Welding Educators. “Our instructors have the experience, knowledge and passion to teach people to become very skilled at the art and profession of welding,” says North.

Failing is not an option

Classes at Merrill are small—a maximum of 10 students—so instructors can monitor students’ progress and accomplishments. Students train from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Instructors are on site from 6 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and available for extra instruction to ensure their students successfully complete the program. “If a student falls behind due to an excusable absence or absences, our instructors will make arrangements to get them caught up—even if they need to come in on a Saturday,” North says.

As they complete the curriculum, students not only become adept in welding technologies but they also grow intellectually. “A huge aspect of the Merrill Institute is getting individuals to think for themselves,” he says. “That sounds simple, but it really isn’t. Employers are looking for employees who are self-starters, people who are punctual and ready to go to work, and people who are willing to continue to learn and go the extra mile for the vision and growth of their company.”

There is high demand for these types of employees. The Merrill Institute holds a reverse career fair about every three months. Companies looking to hire certified welders come in to interview students. North says the fair has been “very successful” with many students receiving “employment offers on the spot.”

More than 220 students graduated over the past five years and 90 percent went on to immediate jobs, North says. Of those 220 graduates, 65 are veterans. Tuition for many veterans was covered through a Michigan Economic Development Corporation fund. 

Students are prepared for what they will face after graduation because from “day one at the Merrill Institute, we treat our students’ training like a job,” North says. “We have a low tolerance for tardiness or calling in. We understand that life happens and babies are born and things happen, but our students need to be great students in order to be great employees. Our welding program was created to give students a skill and get them out into the workforce.”

North concedes that there are many great trade schools in the United States but, “I tell our students coming in for the initial tour and assessment that, whether they decide to attend the Merrill Institute or another trade school, they are setting themselves up for a lifelong career.” FFJ


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