At the Greene County Career Center in southwestern Ohio’s Xenia Township, 650 high school students spend half their day in the classroom, learning traditional subjects like math, English and social studies. The other half of the day, though, is what gets them most excited.
“The afternoon is when it gets interesting,” says Cameryn Akers, a 17-year-old senior who studies at the career center. That’s when he gets to practice his welding techniques, sparks flying from the electrode tip of the tool, as he develops skills that will make him instantly employable. “I like building things and making something out of nothing,” he says.
As soon as Akers and his classmates in the welding and metal fabrication program graduate, they have companies lining up to hire them, like Unison, a wholly owned subsidiary of GE Aviation that manufactures small- and large-diameter tubes and air, fuel, and engine build-up (EBU) ducts for jet engine heating and cooling systems.
And starting in 2020, the Greene County students will get to train in a brand-new, $62 million facility that the career center is building — the biggest expansion in school history, funded by a bond issue approved by local voters who understand the benefits of this sought-after skills training.
Students in the welding program, which has become one of the school’s most popular career tracks, will have updated equipment and space to learn robotic welding. It’s a skill that is growing in importance as manufacturers go on a hiring spree to keep up with orders for their next-generation products.
“When we talk to the industry, they want welders that understand robotics,” says Brett Doudican, curriculum specialist for the career center. “That’s worth a $10-an-hour raise in some places.”
GE Aviation is expanding its educational partnerships with schools like the Greene County Career Center as it tries to catch up with demand for jet engines such as its LEAP engine, made by CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines. By 2020, CFM expects to be building more than 2,000 LEAP engines per year.
The LEAP engine has become the single highest-selling turbofan in the commercial engine industry. One reason for its popularity: fuel efficiency. The LEAP jet engine uses about 15 percent less fuel than its predecessor, the CFM56, thanks to innovative materials and technologies. To achieve this reduction, engineers designed heating and cooling pathways that are more intricate than those of previous CFM engines. Those pathways now have more air, fuel, and oil tubes and ducts — which means more demand for Unison and its welders.
To get those welders, Unison is competing with manufacturers nationwide. The average length of time it now takes to fill a skilled production job, such as welding, machining or equipment operations, increased from 70 days in 2015 to 93 days in 2018, according to a study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. And the National Association of Manufacturers reports that nearly 81 percent of U.S. manufacturers say they cannot find enough skilled welders to meet demand.
“We’re constantly challenged with trying to find enough folks,” says Natalie Van Gramberg, supply chain talent acquisition manager for GE Aviation.
One way for Unison to snag promising young welders is to build connections before they graduate. Last year, Unison and the Greene County Career Center launched a new internship program that creates a pipeline to full-time jobs at Unison once students earn their welding certification.
Similarly, Hobart Institute of Welding Technology in Troy, Ohio, is creating a new aerospace technology curriculum to help train more welders for GE Aviation, says company recruiter DeMarko Neal. Many of the school’s instructors are former GE employees.
At Hobart’s recent career fair, Neal showed students a sample of a successful welding test using tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding, the type performed at GE Aviation’s manufacturing facility in nearby Dayton, Ohio. Afterward, Neal brainstormed ways to catch the attention of the best students, such as hosting a tour of GE’s facility and posting the first notice on Hobart’s job board that students will see when they walk in the door for class.
“GE is usually one of the companies that’s at the top of their radar, so that’s always good,” Neal says. “I was really looking to build a relationship with the leaders there and see how we can be a help, but also put it to our advantage to get these students.”
For students like Akers, who will graduate from the Greene County Career Center in May, studying welding has opened up a world of choices. “My dad is a diesel mechanic, and all his life he’s talked about how hard work is how you succeed,” he says. “I’ve learned that there’s nearly endless possibilities.”