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Welding a successful path for the future

Oconto Middle School students have opportunity to learn the skilled trade through new program

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February 10, 2023

OCONTO – Chad Hendzel, a NWTC welding instructor and operations manager at Yakfab Metals Inc. in Oconto, said the sooner a student’s skill and passion for a trade is identified, “the sooner they can start a successful path forward to a great career.”

A new program at Oconto Middle School is allowing students to do just that.

Recently, the school acquired a MobileArc Augmented Reality Welding System and Prusa i3 3D printers, which gives interested students the opportunity to learn welding skills without the dangers of the real tools.

Emily Miller, superintendent of the Oconto Unified School District said the purchases were part of a $20,000 technology makeover made possible through Leap for Learning – a program aimed at improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education sponsored by the Green Bay Packers and USCellular, as well as the NFL Foundation.

Miller echoed Hendzel’s thoughts on getting students on a career mind-set path early on.

“I believe the relevance comes as we had rebuilt our tech lab at the middle school,” she said. “We felt the value would be to get the students the experience as early as possible.”

Hendzel said with the current workforce challenges, “we feel it is critical for the future of the industry that there are more trades-related classes offered and promoted.”

“The career opportunities are tremendous along with well-paying positions for those who are mechanically driven,” he said.

One of the positives the program offers, Miller said, is it allows students to give welding a try to see if it’s something they’d want to pursue in high school.

“It allows the students to follow up with welding and metal fabrication at the high school level,” she said. “Students will learn the basics of welding, choosing different types of welds and practicing different welding techniques in a safe environment.”

Miller said the hope is the program sparks interest.

“The courses at this age will not come with a high school credit,” she said. “However, we hope it ignites an interest or allows students to feel comfortable exploring the tech ed world that will lead to students enrolling in our courses that are aligned and transcribed for college certifications.”

If it’s something students find they are interested in, Miller said the high school offers college credit courses in welding through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

Augmented-reality welding
A fairly new idea and product, augmented-reality welding dates back to 2012 when it was first shown at the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH) conference.

As time has progressed, Hendzel said, so has the technology and economic value.

However, he said it’s important to remember that while they are better than they ever have been, it’s not a replacement for real-time welding.

Hendzel also said the technology is only useful if the person teaching the students has a welding background.

“If they are going to be used in a school setting, I feel it would be helpful if the teacher took some welding classes or could be shadowed by someone from the industry,” he said.

Jim Eckes, fabrication manager at Nercon, said he first saw the tech at a trade show in 2017.

“It’s definitely a great, economic alternative due to safety and material inventory concerns,” he said. “There’s no need to have various metals kept in a classroom that cut into a school’s budget and take up valuable space.”

Supportive community
Samantha Boucher, Oconto County Economic Development Corporation said the push behind the opportunities the new technology offers is a community effort.

“We are extremely grateful for the support we have received from the community, parents, corporations and companies in the area for our virtual welding course,” she said. “We have seen a great deal of enthusiasm and willingness to help us get this program up and running. We are confident that with everyone’s support and collaboration, our virtual welding course will be a great success.”

Miller said she sees the district’s partnerships with the community continue to grow as it further implements the programming.

Eckes said welders have many different career opportunities in sectors like manufacturing, metalworking and metal art. 

He said introducing the skill at the middle school level opens doors to careers that students might not have considered, and in turn, could save them the time and money of pursuing a college degree or career that isn’t a good fit.

Eckes said it also helps companies like his in terms of replenishing the skilled-worker pool as the population of skilled tradespeople continue to retire.

“Our older craftsmen are leaving the trades and need to pass on their work ethic, experience and skills to keep manufacturing alive,” he said. “These students need to be there, so we don’t lose those years of experience.”

Boucher said it’s important for leaders and educators to provide the necessary resources children need to learn about and pursue skilled-trade careers.

“We can ensure the longevity of these important occupations and help our economy remain strong,” she said.

Boucher said the economic impact of this program to the greater Oconto area is more important than ever.

“As technology continues to evolve and industries become increasingly competitive, having a well-rounded education that includes trade skills is essential in helping students prepare for their future,” she said. “By teaching trade skills in the schools, we are helping to create a more competitive workforce that can respond to the ever-changing needs of the global economy.”

The augmented-reality welding system allows students to learn the basics of welding in a safe environment. Submitted Photo

Hendzel said the middle school’s virtual welding program is a clear example of how collaboration between the school district and local businesses helps strengthen the community.

“It’s nice to get the exposure at the middle school level so they can get into some welding classes in high school if that’s the path they’re interested in,” he said. “If a person has mechanical abilities and likes working with their hands, welding can be a fun job to have.”

Opportunities to advance
Hendzel said the opportunities in a field where there is a shortage of workers means the trades will become a great place to be in the coming years.

“In my experience, it is critical we have exposure… to help explain the industry as it is today versus thoughts from days past. Most of the shops are running state-of-the-art equipment, well-lit shops with LED lighting, as well as excellent benefits and pay opportunities.”

Eckes said the program is helping educate those who may have misconceptions about trades jobs.

“There seems to be less interest by students to get into the trades,” he said. “This is caused in part by stigmas about these positions being unsafe, dirty and not lucrative. When, in fact, they can be challenging and rewarding.”

Miller said the district’s continued focus on providing students with the opportunity to experience trades at a young age is in direct connection with heightened industry requests.

“We have seen many industries in the trades asking for education to support this pathway,” she said. “We wanted our students to be familiar with these opportunities.”

Those involved in the project said they hope it sparks interest and creates opportunities for internships, apprenticeships and employment. 

“We believe this program will provide students with the skills they need to get a head start in the welding industry and open up opportunities for them to turn their passion into a career,” Boucher said.

Hendzel said the opportunities throughout Wisconsin for skilled-trade workers are nearly endless.

“There is more manufacturing done from Marinette to Chicago than anywhere in the country,” he said. “Large employers are pulling staff from across the country to fulfill their needs. It would be great if these positions could be filled locally, which in turn would stimulate the local economy versus having those high paid wages sent back home.”

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