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Starting a spark

KEC program offers high school students a chance to learn welding

Elliott Mains, a senior at Hiawatha High School in Kirkland, knows exactly what he wants to do after he graduates in the spring: He wants to become a welder.

Although still in high school, Mains has a jump start on his career. He is one of about 35 students participating in Kishwaukee Education Consortium’s welding program offered at Sycamore High School.

The program, held Mondays through Fridays for an hour and a half during school hours, is more than an introductory course. The class teaches multiple types of welding: metal inert gas welding, tungsten inert gas welding, shielded metal arc welding and oxyacetylene welding with a torch.

“You can do so many things with a background in welding,” Mains said. “You can go from making school desks to spaceships and rockets for NASA. I love welding. I took the course last year when it was taught at Kish[waukee College]. I know that this is what I want to do with my life. I’ve actually already applied to work part time after school at a welding job, and I’m thinking of joining a pipefitters union.”

Welding is one of the 21 different programs offered through KEC. Additional programs include culinary arts, criminal justice, aviation and automotive technology. All of KEC’s programs are college-level, and only the mass communications program is not offered for college credit through Waubonsee, Elgin and Kishwaukee colleges.

This year, KEC has a record number of students – more than 500 – in its programs. Students from DeKalb, Sycamore, Rochelle, Hiawatha and Genoa-Kingston high schools participate in KEC programs.

“Our class numbers were pretty stagnant for a couple of years, but there’s been an increased focus on manufacturing and a need for welders both locally and nationally,” said Tom Crouch, KEC executive director. “We used to have one session at Kishwaukee College with six to eight students. This year at Sycamore High School, we have about 35 students. Our program has expanded because the demand for welders and the interest in welding is high.”

According to 2017-18 ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage research, skilled trades positions, including welders, electricians and mechanics, are the hardest to fill globally for the sixth consecutive year.

Kevin Nelson, KEC welding and automated engineering technology instructor, said that his main goal is to help students prepare for a possible future career in welding.

“The end goal is that by the end of the welding classes, the students can land any welding entry-level job,” Nelson said. “Welding is needed for anything metal-related: automotives, pipelayers, pipefitters, fabrication, even the aerospace industry. After [completing] KEC classes, students will have the skills necessary to go right to work, averaging $20 an hour right out of school. If they become a pipelayer, they can make $50 an hour, or $100 an hour if they bring their own equipment.”

Before the students can begin welding in the program, they must pass a safety test with a score of 95 percent or higher.

“We want to prepare the students not only how to use different types of welding equipment, but also real-world applications,” Nelson said. “That’s why we also teach them how to use other tools like the bandsaw, drill press and pedestal grinder.”

Once students take Welding 1 and Welding 2 classes in high school, they only need one semester of welding at Kishwaukee College to become a state-certified welder.

“Once students graduate from our program, our goal is always to have them ready for the workplace and ready to enter the workforce,” Crouch said. “All high school students are trying to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives. At KEC, not only are the students exposed to and able to learn about topics that interest them, they can find their passion. They can receive college credit and experience with no cost to them while they’re still in high school.”

Jack Routson, a junior at Genoa-Kingston High School, said he knows that attending a four-year university isn’t for him.

“I don’t want to go to college after [high school] graduation, I want to learn a trade,” Routson said. “My dad is a pipeline welder, and I’ve always liked welding. A lot of the workers in trades are getting older and retiring, so they need young people like us in the field. … Learning a trade is more than just learning how to weld, you learn life skills, you make friends. Welding brings not only pieces of metal together, it brings people together, especially when you work together on a project.”

For information about KEC or its welding program, visit www.kecprograms.com. To donate money or welding materials, such as gear or metal, to the welding program, call 815-825-2000.

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