Blue sparks flickered from the welding torches wielded by Konner LaPlante and Raine Griffin. Clad in protective helmets, goggles, gloves and long sleeves, the welders bent to their task: fabricating bases for new benches at the city of Vancouver’s tennis center.
LaPlante and Griffin lifted the faceplates of their helmets to inspect their work, consulted for a few seconds, then flipped down their faceplates and resumed welding.
When they finished welding the base, a materials handler delivered it to two workers who removed sharp edges with angle grinders.
Nearby, another team stationed at a miter saw measured, marked and cut composite decking into 4-foot lengths for the bench seats.
This efficient shop seems to employ at least a dozen professional welders. But in reality, this is David Richards’ beginning welding class, part of the Welding/Fabrication Technology program at Fort Vancouver High School. Students earn the right to participate in the welding labs after they’ve completed graded projects, Richards said.
The benches slated for the Vancouver Tennis and Racquetball Center are a relatively small project for the students, Richards said. His students have built dozens of greenhouse tables for the district’s high school horticulture programs, utility trailers and custom bicycles. Most recently, students completed the largest project in the program’s history: an 18-foot double-axle utility trailer to haul the program’s raw materials to the school. One of the projects with the highest cool factor was a personal hovercraft.
Although the enormous shop reverberates with a cacophony of power tools, a metallic crash causes Richards to scan the shop to find the source.
“No blood,” he says, seeing a student who accidentally walked into a sheet of aluminum. “He looks OK.”
In his 11 years supervising students wielding power equipment, Richards says only two students have required stitches. Before touching the power tools, students spend hours in the classroom learning safety procedures. The program’s graduates earn safety certification endorsed by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
Then, through hours of hands-on practice, students learn the trade.
“Every kid has to be perfect at stick arc welding. Every kid has to be perfect at wire feed welding,” Richards said. “They build those skills. Once we get those skills, we get hungry looking for projects.”
Freshman Taylor Tang, 15, is the only girl in the class, and one of only five girls among the 105 students in the welding program.
“My dad raised me as a tomboy,” she said. “I definitely want to go into welding or something like it.”
A grant from Boeing provided specialized airplane-building tools, with which the advanced students are building a Bear Hawk experimental airplane. Last year, they completed the fuselage and one wing. Now the second wing is laid out on a workbench in a corner of the shop.
The welding program that Richards has developed is so renowned that local fabrication businesses seeking well-trained employees frequently call to see if any of his students are at least 18 and ready to graduate.
Whether they go right to work or on to additional schooling, welders have a path to a middle-class life. The entry-level wage for welders in Clark County is $16 per hour, said Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington Employment Security Department. That’s 71 percent more than the state’s $9.32 minimum. The median wage for a welder in Clark County is $20.47, Bailey said.
When the program’s graduates land welding industry jobs, Richards writes the names of his former students and their employers on the “Glory Wall” in the metal shop: Farwest Steel, Columbia Casting, Marks Design and Metalworks, Pro-Tech Industries, Inc. Soon Richards will add the name of senior David Giguere, who will start working at Roadmaster, Inc. after he graduates in June.
When Richards told Giguere about the job opportunity at Roadmaster, the student visited the employer the same day and was hired.
“I’ve learned nearly every process of welding,” said Giguere. “Richards has taught me different chemical structures of steel and aluminum and all about heat tempering.”
Now in his second year of the welding program, Giguere was the project lead on the 18-foot utility trailer the students built. He plans to work two or three years “to save up enough money for a trade school, then get a couple more certifications,” Giguere said, “just see where the wind takes me.”
When the student-built utility trailers are sold, the money is used to buy materials for the next project. Although all of the utility trailers have sold, Richards is hoping to find a buyer for the personal hovercraft. (Now that the Columbia River Crossing project is dead in the water, perhaps a buyer will surface.)
What might they do with the money? Richards said the decision is up to the students, but added, “This year the students want to buy Carhartt jackets.”
Looking around his busy shop, Richards said, “It’s been the coolest ride.”