Passing The Torch To A New Generation Of Welders

Sep 19, 2013

Welding torches have sizzled at the Vigor Industrial shipyard on Seattle’s Harbor Island for a century. But the men and women behind the welding masks in this particular warehouse have only been at it for two weeks. The demand for skilled welders is so high that the shipyard and the state are now paying to teach the skill to displaced workers.

Until recently, single father Mike Mullins, 42, supported himself and his three-year-old son as an audio-visual technician at the Art Institute of Seattle. "I was unexpectedly laid off," Mullins said. "I was trying to find work, looking all around. I had been unemployed for eight months, which is the longest time I’ve ever been unemployed in my adult life."

Then Mullins heard about a new, free job skills retraining program for displaced workers through South Seattle Community College, co-sponsored by and based at the Vigor shipyard.

Now, along with 23 other students, Mullins starts his morning taking notes in a welding theory class at the shipyard. Then he picks up his arc welding torch and spends the rest of his day practicing welding positions in a little, glowing booth, showered in sparks.

"It’s hot. It’s hard. And it takes perseverance. But it’s hugely rewarding," Mullins said.
 

It's hot, it's hard and it takes perseverance. But it's hugely rewarding.

Mullins, also a visual artist, wants to use his new welding skills not only to pay the bills, but also on sculptures and art installations. Still, he never imagined himself working in an industrial setting. "But I can easily see myself in this setting as a welder in the future, working in the shipyards, making art, making a living at it. And having a future for me and my son," Mullins said.

The retraining program is modeled after a similar program Vigor has run at its Portland shipyard for five years. Sue Haley, Vigor's senior vice president of human resources, said the investment in money, equipment and space is worth it for several reasons.

Welder Josh Lanser.
Welder Josh Lanser.
Credit KUOW Photo/Jake Warga

Shipyards have to compete for welders with a lot of other industries. And Vigor’s workforce is aging and retiring. "You have a lack of kids coming through the vocational programs and going into the crafts, so it’s kind of a triple whammy," Haley said.

Over the course of the six-month welding certification program, students get to learn welding techniques that translate to many industries, from construction to rail to aerospace. But in Portland, many of the students stay at the shipyard once they’re certified.

"Vigor is fortunately able to employ about 40 percent of the people looking for work that come out of that program. And the balance of them are going to work in other industries in the local area," Haley said.

Once trained, starting pay for a newly certified welder in the Seattle area is often around $20 an hour.

In King County, the state’s prevailing wage for a journey-level welder on a public works project is currently $38 an hour. Experienced welders can make much more.

That kind of pay sounds good to 34-year-old Jason Chappelle, another student in the Seattle Vigor training program. He was a Federal Express delivery driver for a decade until he lost his job last winter. "Basically I’ll be making $8 to $10 an hour more than I was making at Fed Ex after 10 years of employment, so I can’t complain," Chappelle said, and laughed.

Along with the promise of better pay, Chappelle said building things just makes him feel better than he did delivering packages. "It’s more of a sense of accomplishment. You get to see something put together from start to finish."

It's more of a sense of accomplishment. You get to see something put together from start to finish.

For Mullins, after getting laid off from his video editing job, there’s comfort in learning a trade that’s been around for years.

"I’m learning something that’s not going away. A problem in my previous field was technology changes so much that if you’re not on the cutting edge of it day-by-day, knowing the latest computer programs and video programs, you can get left behind very easily," Mullins said. "[Welding] is something that’s going to be around all during my lifetime. I don’t see anything replacing it."

Even though the welding skills Mullins and Chappelle are learning will translate to a lot of industries, they say that when their training is over in December they want to stay on Harbor Island: building ships like a century’s worth of welders before them.

This story is part of The Big Reset, KUOW’s series that explores how the Puget Sound Region has emerged from the Great Recession.