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Minnesota West Welders
By Gretchen Lehmann
December 30, 1998
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The labor shortage was one of the major business stories of 1998. Almost every industry in the state has struggled to find qualified workers, but none more than manufacturing companies. Welders are in very short supply in Minnesota and in neighboring states, and companies are having to boost their salary and benefits packages to keep good welders on the payroll. A college in southwest Minnesota is working to increase the supply of welders in the state and is taking its efforts on the road.

The Minnesota West Community and Technical College welding program resides in a 48-foot semi-trailer. It has a shiny, silver exterior and inside it's lined with what looks like a row of voting booths. What's behind these curtains are 14 individual welding stations. Instructor Don Olson drives the trailer from town-to-town to train future welders.

He's not an itinerant traveler. He goes where he's called. This week he's working with students at Dawson-Boyd High School in southwest Minnesota.

Dawson-Boyd is like many schools in the state; it has cut back its industrial and agricultural classes, meaning young people are no longer being exposed to the hands-on skills area businesses are looking for. Two years ago, Dawson Engineering President Wayne Johnson joined forces with the high school to try to bring welding back in the form of the Minnesota West trailer.

Johnson:We just like to give 'em an idea how to run welders, to run iron workers, to pull tolerances on punching holes,  to do a very neat job of welding, and maybe after they get done they'll think, "That ain't too bad," and maybe they'll try it.

Johnson needs seven welders to keep his livestock equipment business running, but he says there are countless other employers in the area who are looking for welders. The students who train on the Minnesota West trailer spend 120 hours learning welding techniques and 20 hours learning to read blueprints. Dawson-Boyd High School hopes to set up a small business in the shop class where students can learn about bidding a job, producing a product, and selling what they've made.

Roger Fransen, Vice President of Customized Training at Minnesota West says not all their training is as involved as the Dawson program, but the trailer still works: they're turning out more welders.

Fransen: Where we started was ... There is a need out there and nobody was meeting that need, and our college thought that one way that we could support economic development within southwestern Minnesota is to take the training to the places where they needed it.

The primary places are businesses where workers need to brush up on their skills or need specialized training. This kind of training, says Fransen, used to happen in a technical-college classroom. But the nature of training today is geared more towards designing customized programs for each individual business. Fransen says that's where the idea for the welding trailer came from.

Fransen: We can pull into a company, and we can conduct training, and then the company doesn't have to shut down. Whereas before, we were doing some training where we could use their equipment, and so that means whenever training was going on, production would stop while training was going on.

Besides stopping at companies and at high schools, Fransen says the trailer finding its way into welfare-to-work programs.

Fransen: A company down in Worthington, Campbell Soup closed their doors, and we've done at least two programs down there where these dislocated workers took the training then with the unit and then of course become employed again.

In 1998, more than 100,000 Minnesotans received customized training. Fransen says he expects the trend to continue. It's convenient for business owners, and it is also bringing available workers and businesses together. Fransen says in the training in Worthington, several students were hired even before they had completed the welding class.

Fransen says if demand for the trailer continues at this rate, there may be a second welding truck on the road sometime next year.