Fairmont’s Welding Academy Addresses Worker Shortage

1 Aug 2018

By 2020, the demand for welders is expected to grow by 26 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of the main reasons is that baby boomers are retiring — and there aren’t enough trained workers to take their places.

Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent Joe Brown is one of the leaders behind a local push to reinvigorate trades programming at Fairmont High School to help address this imminent workforce shortage.

Brown notes that vocational classes were abandoned in the 1980s and 90s when students were instead pushed to attend four-year colleges. Minnesota companies are beginning to feel the impact of this shift in education. “If we don’t replace these workers it’s going to be an economic train wreck,” Brown says.

Fairmont’s school board recognized the need for comprehensive vocational training. A couple of years ago, it appropriated $100,000 towards an effort to rebuild its vocational programs, including construction trades, small engines, automotive, agriculture and welding.

A primary emphasis has been to build the school’s welding program. Brown has diligently been working to secure the best welding equipment and ensure the school is offering cutting-edge curriculum. He appealed to the state legislature for funding for vocational classes. When that wasn’t fruitful, he solicited sponsorships from area businesses to pay for welding booths.

“The school board is committed to making sure we can grow our vocational programs. Ideally, we’d do that with state funding. But if not, we’ll fund it locally,” says Brown.

These efforts have paid off. When he started his position eight years ago, the school had three welding booths. Now it has 20.

The school offers one College in School career welding class and two intro to welding classes during the regular school year. But with packed schedules, extracurricular activities and jobs, students don’t always have the time or ability to take welding courses as part of their regular coursework.

Three years ago, the school established a Welding Academy. The 15-week program takes place on Saturdays and during the summer. Registration is typically full. It’s open to anybody and is free for Fairmont students.

Adults and students from other districts pay $250 for the 60-hour course. This fee doesn’t cover the total cost, according to Brown, but he says the school wants to “make sure if someone wants to learn how to weld, they can.”

At a recent academy, Brown points out that 11 of 20 students were from Blue Earth Area School District, one of Fairmont’s big rivals. Beyond the training, it’s a lesson in cooperation. “Every Saturday morning, those kids were working together in the same classroom,” he says.

The relationships established with local businesses have also resulted in a unique exchange. From field trips to regional manufacturing companies to mentoring opportunities, the real world perspective offered by these connections is beneficial for students and businesses alike.

This proactive training program is aiding economic development efforts too. Zierke Built Manufacturing moved to Fairmont in 2017, in part, because of the academy. The company wanted assurance that it would have access to skilled workers. Eight academy graduates now have full-time employment with the company.

“Workforce is top of mind for all businesses in the current economy,” says Linsey Preuss, Fairmont’s economic development coordinator. “This program has been vital to economic development efforts and has been a tool to help the area retain the businesses we have and attract additional business."

As a former Iowa state senator who chaired the education committee, Brown probably has a broader vision than most high school superintendents. His goal is to see the welding academy held up as a successful model that is replicated throughout the state — and fast.

“Minnesota needs 260,000 additional workers in the next 48 months. This is a non-partisan issue, it really focuses on the future economy of Minnesota,” says Brown.