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NWC welding program going strong

Welding isn’t just for men anymore, as demonstrated by Monica Gilmore, who is enrolled in the Northwest College welding program. Welding isn’t just for men anymore, as demonstrated by Monica Gilmore, who is enrolled in the Northwest College welding program. Tribune photos by Ilene Olson

Ramsey Green of Billings worked a landscaping job to earn a living while he attended physical therapy classes in Salt Lake City.

It didn’t take him long for him to realize he enjoyed his landscaping job more than what he was studying in class.

“I made gazebos and water fountains, and I was like, ‘This is way more fun than the physical therapy stuff,’” Green said in a recent interview.

That was when he decided to switch majors and attend the welding program at Northwest College instead.

“I just like building stuff,” he said.

Green, now an NWC sophomore, said he likes fabrication and production classes the most because they let him use his creativity.

“You can build whatever you feel like,” he said.

Last semester, he made a set of barstools that are constructed of metal and wood, and he burned a design in them.

“When I first made them, I thought I would sell them or give them to friends and family, but I like them too much. I decided to keep them,” he said.

Green said he plans to get a job in Tucson when he finishes school, and eventually, he wants to set up his own welding business.

Despite layoffs in the oil field, welders are still in high demand, and enrollment in the Northwest College welding program is increasing, said Bill Johnson, coordinator of the program. 

“Even though the Bakken and stuff shut down, there hasn’t been, really, a loss in welding positions,” Johnson said.

This spring, 75 students are enrolled in NWC welding classes — up from about 40 welding students 10 years ago, he said.

That growth has been fueled in part by welding students talking to other students about the program; the students make good recruiters, Johnson said.

In addition, area high schools recommend the college’s welding program, and NWC recruiters have done a great job attracting new students as well, he said.

The program’s success speaks for itself.

“When contractors hear students are coming from this program, they get hired right now, no questions asked,” Johnson said.

Most of the students in the program are welding majors, “but we get quite a few who take a class or two,” Johnson said. “They’re not looking for [an associate degree] or a certificate; they just want to learn how to weld.”

Caleb “Red” McMillan of Soap Lake, Washington, is one of the welding majors. McMillan said he enrolled in the program because “there’s always work to be done in welding; there will always be a job welding.”

His favorite project so far was making some of his own tools, then getting to use them.

“That saved me a little bit of money, and it was pretty cool,” he said.

After he graduates, “I’m probably going down to the Mexican border and [be] helping Trump build the wall,” McMillan said. “I think that would be kind of cool.”

Freshman Michelle Barber of Greybull enrolled in welding because “I thought it would be fun, and I know there’s work everywhere,” she said. “There’s always something new, and it’s hands-on.”

Barber said she enjoys the creative aspect of welding the most; she currently has plans to construct a guitar.

“I’ve laid it out in my mind, and that should work,” she said. “It should come together pretty easily.”

Barber said she plans to work in a fab shop before going out on her own.

“I want to get my own truck, get my own rig setup and work more on the creative side,” she said.

Sophomore Luke Miller said he decided to major in welding because it’s a good trade to know.

“It’s not very restricted, and you can kind of do your thing,” he said. “You use your hands a lot more, and you’re not restricted to the classroom. It’s a nice, relaxed program, and you can learn at your own pace.”

Johnson said the welding program’s growth presents its own set of challenges, such as crowding in the shop and increased use of limited equipment.

“But the three of us [Johnson and assistant professors of welding Harold and Lee Elton] have figured out a way to keep everything going and keep the students going, and I take care of all the equipment to make sure it’s all functioning,” he said. “We all teach an assortment of classes; we have become very diversified, the three of us.”

The program’s greatest needs are to expand the shop and to bring in new technology, Johnson said.

“There’s so much stuff out there that’s changing, you know, and I’d like to see us be part of that change. But the way it is right now, we’re tool-blocked. You bring some of that stuff in now, and there’s no place to put it.”

Johnson has been welding for 40 years, spending years as an ironworker on high-rises, pipelines and many other kinds of projects.

“If they needed a welder, I was there,” he said. “I worked on the MGM Grand in Las Vegas after it caught fire [in 1980]. I worked in Lousiana; I worked all over this country.”

Then, in 1987, Johnson was injured on the job.

“They wouldn’t let me work the trade anymore. I went back to school. I thought first electrical engineering, but I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it at all.”

While studying at Montana State University, Johnson noticed some people trying to figure out how to use some of the university’s welding equipment.

“I got to playing with those welders, and I decided that was what I wanted to do — was teach my trade,” he said. “It was fun teaching them kids down there in the education department how to use a welding rod. That was what excited me, and that’s what excites me today.”

Shop space and equipment are in high demand in the Northwest College Welding Department, located in the NWC Oliver Building. The program, which had about 40 students 10 years ago, now has 75 students enrolled.

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