More than 150 skilled welders will be needed by the end of the year

FAIRFAX, Va. – When the Savannah River Site, a nuclear reservation 25 miles east of Augusta, Georgia, began hiring workers five years ago, welders in the Southeast sharpened their skills and went to work. Today, two additional sites are taking from the same pool of nuclear-grade welders: Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, also known as Plant Vogtle, in Waynesboro, Georgia and the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station (VC Summer), located 20 miles northwest of Columbia, South Carolina.

With many welders already working at Savannah River and the demand increasing for Plant Vogtle and VC Summer, skilled welders are needed to the tune of 150 to 200 skilled welders by the end of the year by contractors’ estimations.

“There will eventually be three major projects all within an hour or two from each other,” said Mike Harris, program administrator for the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal, welding and air conditioning industry. “They need all the skilled welders they can get. We have welders in training, but reaching that skill level takes time.”

The requirements: pass the skills exam, federal-level background check and on-the-job tests.

Chris Griffey, business manager for Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 5 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the team at Local No. 5 has sent about 30 qualified welders to the area five hours away in the last two years. In that time, the local has hosted four concentrated welding programs consisting of brand new to skilled welders from other trades.

“If they have the desire to learn to weld, they’ll get there,” Griffey said. “It’s an effective program. We’ve had good success with it.”

For the welders who are still in training or who haven’t found the trade yet, there is still time. Projects such as VC Summer will open soon, need welders and will employ welders for years to come.

“These jobs are here and now. They will be there a long time,” Harris said. “There will be welders retiring off these jobs.”

The strategy is to be proactive versus reactive to the situation, said Andrew Maute, SMART International Organizer for Region 3, which includes the Southeast. Recently, the area local received a call for six welders to start at the Savannah River site in three weeks. Because welders are consistently training, Maute knew they not only had welders ready to work, they had other welders ready to take their training spots in the booth. It’s a constant cycle.

“The timing is critical. The one thing we can predict about these projects is the unpredictability,” Maute said. “It’s hard to predict when the job calls come. We need to have welders trained and ready to go, so we can act on those unpredictable job calls. It can change at any given time. We need to be ready to respond to unexpected job calls.”

The second half of the area strategy is to recruit welders they can train, not just seasoned welders. Sometimes seasoned welders have habits that get in the way of new skills and procedures necessary for these types of projects.

“It creates a unique situation. One of the factors we’re facing here is this area has already been heavily recruited for experienced welders by all the crafts,” Maute said. “We decided not only to recruit the welders we need but the welders we can train.”

Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 85 is currently building a 5,200-square-foot welding school in Augusta with 15 welding booths to train the welders for the future demand in the area. When the school opens in June, instructors will begin screening potential welders. In the fall, welding apprentices will take to the booths to train. With the need for 150 to 200 welders by the end of the year, skilled workers have their careers cut out for them.

“Welding is a fit for anyone who enjoys working with their hands and has good hand-eye coordination, a steady hand and work ethic,” Harris said. “It’s hands on, active. You’re constantly using your mind, solving problems and overcoming challenges. You learn something new every day no matter your level of experience.”

Welding has proven to be an equally viable career path for men and women. Veterans, many benefiting from direct entry into the welding training program through Helmets to Hardhats, are enjoying career success as well.

Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 399 in Columbia, Charleston and Aiken, South Carolina as well as Local No. 85 in Atlanta and Augusta and Local No. 5 in Tennessee have all participated in the effort to bring welders to the area. Potential welders are pre-screened and interviewed to establish their knowledge and skillset.

Maute suggests any local with welders willing to travel should begin training on the soft skills and welding procedures, so they’re ready to learn the nuclear-grade procedures once they arrive to the area.

“If they can be prepared with these welding procedures and they’re willing to travel, we can fill them in on project-specific procedures, which are constantly changing,” Maute said. “This is all new construction. As the schedule slips, it could crunch and we could exceed the number of welders we think will be needed this year. As the window tightens, contractors need to beef up the number of workers to finish the job.”

Those interested in becoming a skilled welder or welders who would like to transition to sheet metal can call business managers and business representatives at Local No. 399 in South Carolina at 843-554-4418 or Local No. 85 in Atlanta at 404-758-2689.

Nearly 10,000 apprentices are registered at 153 training facilities in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and industrial welding industry throughout the United States and Canada. Headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For more information about ITI, visit www.sheetmetal-iti.org or call 703-739-7200.

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