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Market for welders blazing hot in Clark County

As Vigor ramps up production in Vancouver, the shipbuilder, metal fabricator will need new generation of welders

By Allan Brettman, Columbian Business Editor
Published: March 3, 2019, 6:05am
7 Photos
Mechanic Adam Dietrich preps a part for fit in a local dam project at Vigor in Vancouver’s Columbia Business Park.
Mechanic Adam Dietrich preps a part for fit in a local dam project at Vigor in Vancouver’s Columbia Business Park. Photo Gallery

Teaching methods have changed since Tom Fitzgerald learned to be a welder three decades ago.

“It was pretty rough,” Fitzgerald said.

How rough?

“There wasn’t a lot of training involved. You got trained and you didn’t know you were getting trained. It was just like, ‘Hey, dummy, you did that wrong.’ ”

Fitzgerald, fresh out of high school near Seattle, lapped it up. That’s the way apprentice welders were taught and he was hungry for information from the veterans.

Today, Fitzgerald, 49, is part of the cadre of experienced welders at shipbuilder and metal fabricator Vigor that is teaching the next generation of welders.

Welding employment outlook

1,003 welders in 2016.

Median wage: $21.29 in 2018.

Key industries of employment: metal fabrication, 466; machinery manufacturing, 57; transportation equipment manufacturing, 90; other manufacturing, 115; wholesale trade, 55.

Mentorship, apprenticeship, union referral and community college-based programs are expected to help supply the next generation of welders in a craft that will be pressed to meet demand. That training will be performed against the backdrop of an expected nationwide shortage of more than 200,000 skilled welders by 2020, according to the American Welding Society.

That figures to be about the same time Vigor will start ramping up production at its state-of-the-art, all-aluminum fabrication facility in the former Christensen boatyard next to the Columbia River, near downtown Vancouver. Portland-based Vigor has a contract for about $1 billion with the U.S. Army to build a next-generation landing craft and several other marine projects. The manufacturing facility, scheduled to be in operation this summer, is expected to employ about 130 workers to start and likely ramp up to 400 after three years or so.

About a third of the workers are expected to be welders, who will need to be skilled in working with aluminum, a finicky substance that metals authorities say requires seasoned expertise. Other craft positions likely will include painters, machinists, mechanics, project managers and engineers.

Vigor is ready for the challenge of hiring these workers, said Sue Haley, the company’s executive vice president of human resources and administration.

“We’ll work with pipelines of skilled workers,” Haley said. “We’ll find people through our programs at community colleges, apprenticeships, union referrals, maritime academy recruiting and other maritime programs.”

One of those community college programs is at the Portland Community College/Vigor Maritime Training Center, based at Swan Island, site of one of Vigor’s seven manufacturing operations in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

Officials in Portland and Oregon had hoped that center would have played a role in Vigor choosing Swan Island to build the U.S. Army’s landing craft called Maneuver Support Vessel (Light) or MSV(L). The nearly $1 billion MSV(L), 10-year contract represents the largest award in Vigor’s history. The vessel will be among an array of all-aluminum watercraft built at the Vancouver facility.

But Vigor chose Vancouver.

That’s OK, said Dan Wenger, division dean for Arts & Professions at Portland Community College.

“The beneficiaries of the contract are in the greater Portland metropolitan area and are going to be our community’s residents,” Wenger said. “Our commitment to partner with Vigor is independent of whether it’s across the bridge or in Portland.”

So PCC is forging ahead with seeking Oregon money to expand welding training at the PCC/Vigor Maritime Training Center, knowing graduates specializing in aluminum could one day be headed to Vancouver. The funding would pay for additional faculty and upgrades to the Swan Island facility.

One of the center’s welding programs offers six months of intensive training, followed by a certificate and an 80 percent likelihood of securing a job typically paying $20 an hour or more, Wenger said, reflecting the industry’s demand.

Along the way, the center is trying to do its part in creating a more diverse workforce in the welding profession, which Wenger and others said is overwhelmingly white and male.

In 2017, about 30 percent of the PCC/Vigor Maritime Training Center students were people of color and about 20 percent identified as female. The center’s faculty includes four men and three women.

One day, half of the students will be women, or at least that’s the goal, Wenger said.

Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College, echoed Wenger’s regionally inclusive sentiments about the Swan Island facility’s expansion.

“Vancouver is still in the region,” Mitsui said, speaking after a trip to talk to Oregon legislators in Salem. “It still benefits workers who are living in Portland and future workers living in Portland who will need upskilling.”

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Furthermore, Mitsui said, the aluminum-focused improvements envisioned at the Swan Island PCC facility persist, even after Vigor chose Vancouver.

“Aluminum welding is probably going to become a greater need rather than a lesser need because of the benefits of aluminum as a material,” the PCC president said. “I don’t think it’s going to diminish. And the general need for welders is continually growing. We’re going to continue to try to expand our production of graduates.”

Vigor-focused efforts are in their infancy in Vancouver, whose civic and education leaders were as surprised as anyone in Oregon when the company announced its choice Feb. 1.

Clark College has a long-standing welding program that produces 60 trained welders a year, said Caleb White, head of Clark College’s Welding and Fabrication Technology Department.

“Clark is in a good position where we could help,” White said, in part because it recently earned designation as an American Welding Society Accredited Test Facility. The status means, among other things, that the college is listed on the society’s website for employers seeking certified welders.

“I’m excited with the work Vigor is bringing, and what that’s going to do for the area,” said White, who knows the company already has 115 workers at a separate Vancouver fabricating operation near the Columbia River, a facility with roots in Oregon Iron Works.

“I see a lot of opportunity for growth out of that one contract,” White said. “So I’m excited to see what it will yield.”

While Vigor only contacted Vancouver officials in November about the city’s potential for the new facility, the Columbia River Economic Development Council has been working with Vigor officials throughout the selection process. That includes assessing training needs, said Darcy Hoffman, director of business services for Workforce Southwest Washington in Vancouver.

“I’m excited to help Vigor convene, coordinate and align the workforce troops,” Hoffman said in an email. “We have a great network of capable workforce organizations and training providers and I’m a resource for Vigor to ensure that we’re all working together to meet their workforce needs.”

Presumably, those training providers will not tell a fledgling welder who makes a misstep, “Hey, dummy, you did that wrong.”

Well, if not that, then how should the aspiring welder be corrected?

For that, we seek the opinion of Fitzgerald of Vigor, who jumped into welding when he was 18 years old and the Mariners still played in the Kingdome.

“I would explain it to them,” Fitzgerald said, during a break from work in one of Vigor’s cavernous buildings in the Columbia Business Park. “I would say you didn’t do that right. This is how you should have done it.

“I might even show ’em. I think hands on — if you can show something, this is how you should do that — well, they not only believe it can be done but they can see it now, right? I do that quite a bit.”

Sounds like a smart approach.

Columbian Business Editor