California’s boom in manufacturing has highlighted an ongoing problem: an urgent demand for skilled welders. The state added more than 13,000 manufacturing jobs since August 2020 and now, with the support of major corporations such as Siemens and Blue Diamond behind them, area community colleges are addressing this need.

The average age of a welder across the nation is 56, explains Alex Taddei, professor of welding, metal forming and layout at San Joaquin Delta College, while the typical retirement age is roughly 57. And because many high schools have dropped their welding programs over the years due to costs, “it’s created the perfect storm for a shortage. I’ve never seen demand this high, and it’s a concern all across the nation, especially where there are firms with big federal contracts,” he says.  And it doesn’t look like the need is going to end anytime soon.

Siemen’s Mobility has recently inked a deal with Amtrak to build 73 train sets by 2030, opening up jobs for at least 100 new welders in the Sacramento area. But that’s not all.  “California is steeped in agriculture, and we also have some of the largest structural manufacturers here, plus canneries and aerospace. All these industries need welders with different capabilities. The industrial maintenance a winery needs requires a different skill set than needed for construction,” explains Taddei.  

To address the issue, community colleges like Delta and Sierra College in Rocklin offer several specialized, eight-week certificate programs, as well as associate degree programs in welding. The certificates are stackable, so credits can be applied toward the associate degree. 

“We’ve made it possible for a student to come in for just a semester and leave with a good paying, entry level job,” says Aleda Vaughn, welding technology instructor and department chair at Sierra College. “Professionals from the industry sit on our boards and teach in our classrooms, and we’re very responsive to what they tell us the industry needs so that our program stays on the forefront.” As an example, she notes that Sierra is teaching more wire feed (MIG) welding, a more automated process than traditional stick welding and one that many area manufacturers now require. 

Connections with local industry professionals are a hallmark of community colleges, and one that often sets them apart from four-year schools. “We keep in constant contact with the businesses in our area,” says Taddei. “It helps us to keep on top of what skills they’re looking for. And because our program is almost cost-free, we depend on their generosity in giving us the materials that our students work with.” When a student graduates with a certificate or degree, the connections are there for job seekers. “They rely on us heavily for candidates,” Taddei says.

Once in the workforce, many students continue to earn additional certifications to make themselves even more marketable. “Roughly one-third of the students in our program come directly from high school. The rest are adult learners,” says Vaughn. 

The pandemic forced some changes to the program, says Sierra College’s Amy Schulz, PhD, MBA, dean of career, continuing and technical education. “We’ve had to keep classes small because of social distancing restrictions. And we put all the lectures online, so students only came to campus for a six hour lab once a week.” Ironically, these adaptations have proven to be a positive: Students liked the flexibility of online classes and the fact that they could replay lectures when needed. And the smaller, in-person labs meant more faculty attention. “These are changes we’re going to keep,” says Schulz.