SEWARD — Mike Stevenson has been fascinated with how things work for his whole life. Even when young, the 19-year-old from Talkeetna would take things apart and put them back together. These days, however, he’s more interested in fixing heavy equipment and big rigs.
“Heavy equipment is fun,” Stevenson said.
The fun of the work — not to mention the job prospects — is part of what draws students from all over to the small city of Seward every year to be part of the welding program at AVTEC, Alaska’s Institute of Technology.
AVTEC has offered classes and certifications for pipe and steel welding for more than 40 years. Kent Berklund, head of AVTECs Applied Technologies Department, said the program’s success lies in its results for the students.
The welding programs started at the same time AVTEC did in 1969.Berklund said it was originally to help solve the state’s lack of skilled welders for the pipeline. It has since evolved into a multitude of certifiable processes for students to work in the trades in most industries or to prepare to become journeymen.
Five years ago, the institute introduced a 21-week Combination Welding Program in which students go through both structural and pipe welding courses. They learn to weld in virtually all positions and earn certifications. Pipe-welding students learn to cut anywhere from 2-inch to 24-inch pipes. There are two such programs per year, during which people travel from all communities to live in Seward while attending.
Students start in structural welding, while the top performers may move on to the pipe welding program.
They learn stick electrodes, wire feed processes, plasma arc cutting, air cutting, computerized cutting and oxyacetylene welding. The programs also emphasize math skills and non-destructive testing. Berklund said about 60 percent of the time is spent in the labs doing practical work.
“Basically it’s a lot of hands-on hard work,” he said. “There’s no time for them to goof off. They have to stay on task.”
Graduates can earn American Welding Society and American Society of Mechanical Engineers certifications. Berklund said these are needed for many successful employment opportunities. Certifications are done by a separate party.
Berklund said that certification doesn’t automatically mean one is ready to work on a pipe, but the lab work helps ensure that they are. Besides practical work, the students receive job placement assistance.
“We’re training for job readiness, not just a skill,” Berklund said.
The job prospects are what draw a lot of students into the program.Berklund said they have 100 percent placement for combination program graduates. Graduates from the structural program alone have about an 85 to 90 percent job placement range.
Berklund said there’s no shortage of job opportunities for welders. He said some graduates go to work on the North Slope, some join unions and others go to companies all over the state. Two recent graduates even bought their own equipment and are working in the North Dakota oil fields. He said the institute has a hard time holding on to some students because they get pulled away to go to work.
Students in the program relish this notion of a good chance for a job, especially if they’re inclined to be doing what they enjoy.
Stevenson, the student from Talkeetna, has already landed a job to his liking with heavy equipment on the North Slope. He will work for half a year after AVTEC then see about staying longer.
Berklund said AVTEC’s welders are needed to keep Alaska’s economy moving because most of them stay in the state. He said the program’s reputation for quality has reached companies in all industries and encourages local hires.
He said another student was the only one on a North Slope job site who knew how to successfully pull away from a broken pipe. He said AVTEC does a great deal of North Slope training and safety training for just this reason.
“When the pipeline does start construction, our students will be on the front,” he said.
One growing opportunity for Alaskan welders is building boats. Berklund said Bristol Bay Native Corp. and Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association have been important partners in this enterprise.
The full program lasts 177 days and is conducted twice a year. The average class size is 20 students. Between structural and pipe welding, the division usually gets 42 students per year.
Berklund said most of them fall in the age range of 23 to 33 with the majority being about 25. He said the student majority used to be about 30 years old, but an increasing number of younger students have become interested when they discovered that vocational wages could be just as good or better than jobs stemming from college degrees. He said most welders earn wages comparable to college graduates and industrial electricians can make more than master’s degree holders.
The program itself has grown, too. Berklund said there used to be two students per class. The institute can now handle 10 in a class with separate labs and instructors.
AVTEC has also developed a lengthy waiting list for the program. There is currently a tentative agreement with Kodiak’s school district to get students directly into the program next year.
Berklund is proud of the welding program and he’s not alone. Joseph Premo, 21, of Anchorage praised the program for helping steer him to a career path he wants. Premo is a graduate of West Anchorage High School where he took welding courses at King Career Center. He quickly figured out there isn’t much else he’d rather do. Working retail while living “paycheck to paycheck” cemented his decision to apply. After more than a year on the waiting list, he got in.
Premo is in the structural welding program and plans to move on to pipe welding in the fall. He said his earning potential has already doubled and will rise even higher once he starts on the pipes. On top of that, the work itself is a reward.
“I’ve really fallen in love with it,” Premo said.
Like many of the students from Nome to Juneau, Premo sees the value of living in Seward while attending class. He said the isolated situation allows him to really focus on his studies. He said they get very intense, which helps generate experts because they’re expected to perform near perfection and that’s what the workforce demands. He said this condensed training is better than a two-year associate’s degree.
“I started as an amateur and transformed into a professional,” he said.
Premo said his instructor has put more than 120 students into the workforce. He can’t wait to become part of that statistic and hopes to work for an oil field service company on the North Slope.