When the new Welding Technology Center at Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Schnecksville had its ribbon cutting earlier this month, the $4.25 million addition represented a world-class training facility that was created to address a growing national problem.

Plasma cutting table

“Welders are in great demand everywhere,” said Kurt Adam, LCTI Director of Career & Technical Education. “They are greatly needed nationally as welders prepare to retire in the coming years. Employers need to hire students upon graduation from a school like LCTI and allow time for them to be trained by the older, retiring welders. We just can’t keep up with the demand! I’m retiring soon and like all the others I wonder who will replace us when we are gone.”

Manufacturing and welding go together hand-in-glove because welders work in all aspects of the manufacturing industry to build structures, make assembly lines run, and to help with invention and innovation.

And while the region did go through a period of decline in manufacturing years ago, according to Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, manufacturing is the region’s third largest sector in terms of jobs. More than 700 manufacturers employ 34,000 people. In the past five years, manufacturing jobs in the region have even increased by 5,000, at a time when other regions in the state are losing those jobs. In fact, manufacturing is 18 percent of the region’s gross domestic product compared to 13 percent nationally, to the tune of $7.3 billion.

“America still makes things,” Don Cunningham, President and CEO of LVEDC, said at the welding center’s recent grand opening ceremony. “Lehigh Valley hosts companies that make things and there’s great skilled work in manufacturing, welding, and technology in the Lehigh Valley. This project will be able to deliver welders to our economy at a high skill level that is critical to the whole ecosystem of the Lehigh Valley.”

A new home for welding training

The new center features 40 welding booths, 10 workstations, and two virtual reality welding machines that allow students to practice their hand-eye coordination safely. The lab is filled with modern, advanced equipment with digital controls, unlike the old knobs and dials on machines used by some of their predecessors. A plasma table can cut metal 4 ft. x 8 ft. sheets that are ¾ inch thick.

The Pennsylvania Department of Higher Education provided a much-needed $50,000 grant for the purchase of the equipment. Just over half a million dollars was spent on equipment for the lab, with $260,000 of that on welding machines alone. This week students will finally leave the old 6,600 sq. ft. lab and start to work in the 12,000 sq. ft. lab which they have been helping to prepare for their arrival.

“All of our seniors are participating in the co-op education program with local manufacturers,” Adams explained. “In all trades we highly encourage them to go out for a co-op experience. They earn $15-20 an hour to start at a co-op job for four hours a day. Some of the students also attend secondary schools like PennTech or Lehigh Carbon Community College, which is LCTI’s next door neighbor. All of our students are focused on what they want to do and where they want to go with their career.”

Most manufacturers will continue an employee’s education once hired, which is one of the main reasons LCTI offers adult education classes in the evenings, three to four times a week. “Our adult program is also full!” said Adam.

 

Getting input on training for the future

The Occupational Advisory Committee at LCTI acted as a sounding board for this project, helping to inform the school of not only the technology the students need to know today, but also what they will need to learn in the years ahead as technology changes.

Virtual reality welding trainers

“We create programs and curriculum that prepare students for the jobs of the future, not just the jobs of today,” said Adam. “We want them to stay ahead in their industry.”

“Our students also act as sounding boards for us,” said Adam. “They are walking billboards for our school. They talk to their friends, parents and family members about the work they do at LCTI and the types of things they are learning. It’s invaluable first-hand knowledge and acts as a form of recruiting too.” And students form a special connection to LCTI, leading many of them to return as instructors down the road.

The school’s welding program has also welcomed several female students, as has the plumbing program, a result of LCTI’s outreach efforts encouraging students to consider all fields and not follow past gender stereotypes. “We are pushing the non-traditional envelope by getting students into career tracks opposite from the usual based on their gender,” explained Adam.

Renovations are ahead for the old welding lab; it will be turned into a studio for the new Emerging Digital Media and Social Communications Program.