Wyoming's mining industry contributed approximately one third of both the state's total earnings and job growth, according to a 2005 economic forecast report from the state's Economic Analysis Division. Mining – along with similar industries such as manufacturing, transportation and agriculture – means an economy of heavy equipment and industrial machinery. In recent years, these industries have often found themselves challenged to find, hire and retain well-trained mechanics and welders prepared to handle the maintenance and repair that this equipment demands.
With this challenge in mind, a small, two-year community college located in the southeastern corner of Wyoming has a program that trains and graduates the highly skilled welders demanded by industry.
Eastern Wyoming College is located in Torrington, and serves 1,500 students from Wyoming and neighboring Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado and Montana. The college is well known for its Welding & Joining Technology Program, which is led by three American Welding Society (AWS)-Certified Welding Instructors with a combined 75 years of experience.
The welding program has enjoyed significant growth in recent years, and it was quickly outgrowing its lab. This led the college to launch its first major gift campaign to raise money for a second welding lab. The college's efforts and the community's generosity resulted in $1 million for the new lab, which opened earlier this year.
The Goal – More than Just Skilled Welders
Eastern Wyoming's welding program started in 1980, and currently has 42 full-time students working either towards a two-year associate degree or one-year certificates. Students completing the program leave as AWS-Certified Welders. Part-time Eastern Wyoming students in other disciplines – such as agriculture and art – as well as local high school students, also have access to the welding classes and facilities. Additionally, Eastern Wyoming is one of only 50 AWS-accredited test facilities in the country and was one of the first to attain this designation.
"A welding program is measured both by the value it offers its students and the value its graduates bring to their future employers. With this in mind, we are vigilant in staying current with industry's needs and how we best prepare our students to meet those needs," said Leland Vetter, Eastern Wyoming's senior welding facility member.
"Our program is comprehensive. We teach the latest in welding techniques, expose students to technology and equipment they'll use on the job, and give them direct access to industry professionals. The result is the highly skilled welders demanded by industry," Vetter added.
But the program goes beyond just turning out excellent welders; it also aims to graduate well-rounded employees who understand that no one occupation operates in a vacuum.
"We're concerned about the whole person, and understand that a good employee is more than just a good welder. It's important our students are exposed to other subjects and that they understand how they can contribute to a future employer's overall success," said Russell Pontarolo, Eastern Wyoming welding instructor and a 1994 graduate of the program.
In addition to the extensive schedule of core welding and machine tooling classes, students are exposed to courses in Political Science, English, Electrical and First Aid, as well as Metallurgy and Safety and Health.
Safety & Health – More than a Just a Course
Throughout the welding program, safety and health take on a much more prominent role than just a one-time, three-credit hour course.
"When safety measures are overlooked, welding can pose a distinct combination of health and safety risks, including mechanical and electrical hazards, heat, noise and exposure to fumes and gases. Practicing correct safety protocol is hammered home in every procedure and process in our labs – from the minute you walk in the door to the moment you leave," Pontarolo said.
The instructors teach their students that personal protective equipment, including a welding helmet, goggles, fire-resistant gloves, steel-toed shoes, hardhat and flame-retardant coveralls, as well as hearing protection and a respirator when needed, must be worn prior to picking up any tools. But this gear is just the beginning of ensuring safety in the lab.
The right equipment and materials are also important. With the variety of gases and fumes associated with welding, adequate ventilation is achieved from airflow and proper extraction of fumes, especially if working in a more confined space.
"Welding fumes should be properly extracted and filtered - it's important for the safety of our students, instructors and visitors," Vetter said.
With the $1 million raised by the college, the school was ready to construct and equip a state-of-the-art welding lab to complement its existing one. One of the first pieces of equipment purchased and installed was a fume extraction system.
High-vac systems use higher pressure/low volume to extract fumes through a smaller nozzle than a low-vacuum (low-vac) system, allowing fumes to be captured more quickly and closer to their source.
Eastern Wyoming installed a Lincoln X-Tractor 52 high-vac central fume extraction system in its new lab. The system, which runs independently from the lab's other HVAC systems, provided the safety, flexibility and ease of use the school needed. Built for use with multiple booths and designed for continuous use, the high-vac fume extraction system removes the welding fume right at the arc – before it reaches the operator's breathing zone.
The X-Tractor 52 high-vac central fume extraction system features a self-cleaning filter. The cleaning of the filter, segment by segment, with compressed air results in a consistently high airflow and eliminates the need to constantly replace filters. When the filter becomes dirty, a pressure sensor activates the cleaning system. Compressed air from the tank releases through multiple air-jets to clean one section of the filter at a time. Welding particulate is knocked off of the cartridge and into a collection bin.
Eastern Wyoming College uses approximately 14,000 pounds of welding consumables a year. In the five years of use with the X52 fume extraction system, they have only had to change the filter once. The collection bins are emptied twice a year.
The New Lab – More than Doubles School's Capacity
The college more than doubled its capacity by adding 19 welding booths to the new lab, bringing the total capacity for both labs to 34 stations. "We have had great results from the X-52 fume extraction system in our first lab, so it made perfect sense for our second lab," Vetter said. "And Lincoln has a great reputation.
We knew from experience that they stand behind their products. And they have an appreciation for the challenges faced in the field and have constructed their equipment to address those."
Ease of use was also a consideration: "Unlike a job shop, one challenge we face are students who are young and have often had little exposure to industrial equipment. This high-vac fume extraction system is straight forward and easy to use," Pontarolo stated. "With smaller duct work, it also provides better lighting and less shadows, allowing students to better focus on the details of their projects."
Students primarily train with carbon steel, stainless steel and cast iron, and each of the booths can accommodate various types of welding processes, including MIG, TIG, Flux-Cored and Stick. The labs include 26 other pieces of Lincoln equipment, ranging from CV-305 power sources with DH-10 wire feeders, Precision TIG® 185 welders, Idealarc 250 stick welders, and Power Wave® 455 waveform control power sources with Power Feed® 10 wire feeders.
Having the right welding and safety equipment is only part of the success of Eastern Wyoming's welding school. Vetter and Pontarolo put in a significant amount of time staying in touch with key business and industry leaders, as well as high school instructors.
"We keep our ear to the ground, allowing us to stay current on trends, determine what employers are looking for and make sure that our program matches up," Vetter added.
"Our students and graduates benefit greatly from direct exposure to in-the-field professionals in terms of industry experience and connections to future jobs." Michael Helser found a job at Caterpillar in Casper, WY, after he graduated from Eastern Wyoming's welding program in 2002.
"I came into Eastern Wyoming's program just wanting to learn the trade. I left with a lot more. My exposure to the latest welding technology and processes, a variety of classes and interaction with industry professionals prepared me well," he said. "Now, I'm working for one of the world's best-known construction equipment manufacturers. You can't beat that."