Welding Programs Seek Funds to Meet Rising Demand

By Carlos Plaza and Asra Jawaid

By most accounts, having to expand your welder training facility by several thousand feet just to keep up with the influx of new students is a good problem to have—if you have the money. The Pennsylvania College of Technology finds itself in just such a quandary.

According to Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour, welding continues to be one of the school’s most popular majors. In fact, the welding program was the institution’s first to fill up this year. “We did a mini in-house renovation a year ago to take in an additional 15 or 20 students, and we still have more demand and a significant waiting list,” said Gilmour. Welding is so popular in this locale, at times there are over 40 students on the waiting list. Students actually end up taking other courses while they wait for slots in the welding ones to open up.

In response, the college’s board of trustees unanimously voted to accept a $2 million grant from the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce (EDA). If awarded, the college can expand its welding facility by 22,000 square feet.

“The expansion will approximately double the size of the facility to more than 40,000 square feet and will allow us to take an additional 50 students each year,” said Paul L. Starkey, vice president for academic affairs/provost. “These students, upon graduation, will help fill unmet demand for highly skilled employees in a number of industries.”

That’s the upside. The EDA grant would still require a cash match of $3 million and that cannot be used for equipment. “It’s also a match … but you don’t see a $2 million dollar there, you see a $3 million dollar there,” Gilmour said. “The other million dollars is the funding we anticipate will be required to finish the project. EDA only pays for bricks and mortar. They don’t pay for equipment. They don’t pay for anything else…. So, those are additional things required.”

Monica Pfarr, Corporate Director of Workforce Development at the American Welding Society, notes that federal grants such as the one being offered by the EDA, often don’t allow for the purchase of equipment and consumables. However, other sources of funding may cover these expenses. “Look for funding opportunities in your state’s department of education and reach out to equipment manufacturers to subsidize or reduce the cost of equipment and consumables,” said Pfarr. On Lincoln Electric’s Tips and Tricks for Successful Grant Writing webpage, Bob Visdos and Sarah Evans report that, “an increased motivation in developing the country’s base of knowledgeable, skilled workers also has affected state governments. Increasingly more states are passing laws and creating programs to help expand the accessibility of career and technical education for residents and boost economic development.” Miller Electric’s Grant Assistance Tool echoes this view, and like Lincoln, lists additional governmental and private funding sources.

Walters State Community College opens a new welder training facility in Greenville, Tennessee. The project was financed with a $337,000 state grant.

Among these funding sources are foundations, such as those led by Boeing, Bank of America, and the American Welding Society. In fact, the AWS Foundation recently established the AWS Foundation Welder Workforce Grant in an effort to help training institutions create new welder training programs or improve current facilities. This is the kind of grant that Penn College can use to buy welding equipment, improve the facility, and even expand the teaching staff.

Of course, every training center has a different mix of needs. However, regardless of its scope, a funding game plan is only as good as the research that goes into it. In other words, you have to do your homework! For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is dedicated to helping disadvantaged children and families, may not stand out as an obvious funding source for welding training. However, community leaders in Franklin County, Maine secured funds from the private philanthropy to create college courses designed to train workers in an area hard hit by the decline of the region’s traditional wood-based industries. Among the college courses is a 160-hour welding program that a Maine boat manufacturer paid local residents to attend.

This points to the importance of building relationships with local business, non-profits, and other educational institutions. “It’s good practice to connect with local economic development initiatives; partner with local businesses and industry and/or community-based organizations and non-profits; and establish partnerships with key educational institutions at the secondary, vocational or post-secondary levels,” said Visdos and Evans. “The more visible you are about your mission, your project and the role you can play in the community at large, the better known and credible you will be to funding agencies.”

It can be a time consuming, competitive process but securing the funds to improve our nation’s capacity to train the future welders of America is certainly worth it.