Sparks fly at CCAC’s midnight welding course
It’s midnight, and class is in session.
Blinding flashes project silhouettes against the heavy, rubber-strip curtains of the welding bays.
Grinders scatter sparks across the concrete floor.
Metal crackles and melts, then sizzles as students dunk their projects into large sinks filled with water.
“It’s OK,” Cody Boberg says as he inspects his work, running his finger across the beads he’s layered in a V-groove.
Boberg, 30, of Coraopolis tosses the project in a scrap bin, grabs three more pieces of metal and disappears into his welding bay. He’s already pulled a nine-hour shift at a mechanic garage in Canonsburg, and even though the clock has ticked past midnight, it’s back to work.
The Community College of Allegheny College rebooted its midnight welding course this fall at its West Hills Center in North Fayette, the second time the college has run the course in the past decade.
In 2010, the last time CCAC ran a midnight course, record unemployment nearing 9 percent drove students seeking a paycheck to sign up for welding in droves. This time around, with unemployment sliding below 6 percent, it’s the allure of jobs, said Ron Logreco, the assistant dean at CCAC’s West Hills Center.
“This summer, when Shell announced the cracker plant, we knew right away that our welding courses might fill, and sure enough, five weeks before the deadline to register, they filled,” Logreco said.
Royal Dutch Shell announced in June it would build a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in southern Beaver County. The ethylene cracker will break down large molecules from oil and natural gas to produce polyethylene, a common plastic, according to Shell.
Shell officials said it will take about 6,000 workers to build the plant. Logreco said when construction is at its peak, about 2,000 will be welders. Construction should start in the next 18 months and last several years.
“That’s the plan,” said Devlin Colaluca, 22, of Robinson.
Colaluca works 9-to-5 doing non-welding tasks in a nonunion steamfitters shop. He hopes the class will get him into the steamfitters union’s apprenticeship program to set him up for a job working on the cracker plant.
CCAC typically offers three welding classes a day: morning, afternoon and evening. Each class has 16 spots and those 48 spots filled up with five weeks left for students to register for classes, prompting CCAC to open a midnight session.
Twelve students signed up for the four-day-a-week course running from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Welding classes at the nearby Pittsburgh Technical College are full. Chris Reber, president of the Community College of Beaver County, expects spots in its upcoming welding courses to fill quickly. Reber said the college will add as many sessions as needed to meet student demand. The college is developing programs and tweaking existing ones for the cracker plant.
“Preparing for and addressing the needs of the cracker plant is priority No. 1 for us,” Reber said.
Students who enrolled in CCAC’s September courses will be ready to work by December, Logreco said. Wages for rookie welders start around $15 per hour. Most will get their first jobs through staffing agencies but will likely land full-time gigs in three to six months, Logreco.
Community college and technical college courses make the students attractive to union apprenticeship programs with either the steamfitters or ironworkers, both of whom are gearing up for the cracker plant, said Jason Fincke, executive director of The Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania. An entry-level apprentice makes $18 to $20 an hour. The steamfitter program takes five years, the ironworker program three.
Journeyman welders make in the mid-to-upper $30 an hour, Fincke said. He said Shell will be looking for journeymen and apprentice-level welders.
“Now is a good time to start learning the skill and practicing it over the next eight to 10 months,” Fincke said. “Welding takes a lot of practice. It’s not even a matter of hours or days; it’s weeks or years.”
Fincke believes welding jobs will be in high demand even after the Shell cracker plant is built. More cracker plants in the region are possible, plus there will be a need for welders as downstream and spin-off companies take off. And as baby boomers retire, contractors will need skilled welders to take their place, Fincke said.
Ben Schempp starts to work right when he arrives at CCAC. The former Indiana University of Pennsylvania business student who dropped out to work at hydraulic fracturing sites all over Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia — only to be out of a job when the market stumbled — just finished tending bar for the evening at Industry Public House in Robinson.
“I’m used to it,” Schempp, 26, of Robinson, said, noting that 16-hour days and 100-hour weeks can be common in the oil and gas industry.
“Coffee is my best friend.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or [email protected]