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Inverter Technology Helps Alberta Technical Institutions Tackle Welder Shortage

Executive Summary

Alberta’s top technical institutions – NAIT and SAIT – rely on new inverter and wire feeder technology from Miller Electric Mfg. Co. to accommodate an increase in students and to pump skilled labor into a hungry labor market in the province.

Addressing the Welder Shortage: Lessons From Alberta

While U.S. federal and state government agencies don't seem to be able to articulate a clear policy on the skilled trades, Canada, and particularly the province of Alberta, have. The extraction of oil and other natural resources has created a boom that makes Alberta the "Texas of the North." You can hardly pick up a newspaper in Alberta and not see headlines like "skilled worker shortage" or "labor shortage."

To meet demand, the province aggressively recruits young people into the trades and invests heavily in technical schools. Educators at two technical institutions that teach welding — (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT, in Edmonton (www.nait.ca)) and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT, in Calgary (www.sait.ca)) — agreed to share successes and insights about their programs.

NAIT operates the province's largest welding program, and SAIT operates the second largest. With over 8,000 apprentices requiring training in 2008, 1,725 will attend NAIT and 1,372 will attend SAIT. NAIT increased its enrollment by 60 percent after opening its new C$15.5 million facility in 2006, and it has increased staff by 63 percent in the 18 months from January 2005 to 2007. With 51 instructors, NAIT can come close to its goal of a 10:1 student-to-instructor ratio. By 2008, SAIT will have doubled its staff from 10 years ago to 40 instructors (to maintain its 14:1 student-to-instructor ratio), increased enrollment by nearly 1,000 students and totally refurbished five welding labs.

(From L-R) Dan MacKinnon and Bob Clark, respectively chair and associate chair of the Welding Program at NAIT, stand in the lobby of the newly built Waiward Center for Steel Technologies at NAIT's Souch Campus. The plaques on the wall indicate industry supporters for NAIT's efforts.

To save room in its welding booths, SAIT selected 60 Dynasty 200 DX inverters because their compact size and light weight permits mounting them on the wall.

Out with the Old

Just 10 institutions meet training demands for all of Alberta. Shouldering this load required NAIT to take in five new batches of students each year. The need to share equipment among so many students required teaching on triple shifts: 7:15 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., 9:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.

George Rhodes, SAIT's academic coordinator for welding/NDT and manufacturing and automation, says that, "We trained 728 students in 2006 and we were at capacity. This year, AIT [the Alberta apprentice board] asked us to train an additional 200 students. The only way we were going to be able to accommodate that was by upgrading our welding labs and welding equipment."

Until 2006, NAIT and SAIT trained students on a hodgepodge of old (sometimes ancient) CC- and CV-only equipment. This bulky equipment took up so much space that only one machine fit in a welding booth. In addition, teaching students on old equipment doesn't do them any favors when they get on the job.

"As a technical institute, we can never let ourselves get behind industry," says Bob Clark, associate chair of NAIT's welding program. "We have to be technology leaders. If you're teaching, you want to be on that leading edge and must have the right equipment."

For training students on Stick, DC-TIG, MIG and flux cored welding, NAIT recently installed 203 XMT® 350 CC/CV multi-process inverters with Auto-Line™ power management technology. Complementing these power sources are 66 (70 Series) dual wire feeders with digital meters and 102 (70 Series) dual wire feeders with digital meters and digital controls for dual schedule control, adjustable weld sequence control, weld process range control and weld program setup and storage.

For training students on AC/DC TIG welding and Stick welding, NAIT selected 72 Dynasty® 350 inverters with Auto-Line and controls for high-speed pulsed DC-GTAW (up to 5,000 PPS) and AC-GTAW controls for independent EN and EP amperage control, extended balance control (30 to 99 percent EN), AC frequency adjustment (20 to 400 Hz) and four AC waveform outputs (advanced squarewave, soft squarewave, sine wave and triangular wave).

"Digital controls help students," says Clark. "After we demonstrate a weld procedure, students can go back to their booths, set the same parameters their instructor used and feel a lot more confident about getting good results."

Students can train on any welding process in this NAIT welding booth because the XMT 350 and Dynasty 350 inverters save space compared to traditional equipment.

While of average size, SAIT's welding booths have room to spare because inverter-based welding equipment like the Dynasty 200 and XMT 350 takes up so little room. This apprentice can practice every welding process required to earn his Red Seal, as well as AC TIG.


To teach AC/DC TIG and Stick welding, SAIT opted for 60 compact Dynasty 200 DX inverters that feature extended balance control (30 to 99 percent EN), AC frequency adjustment (20 to 250 Hz) and controls for pulsing at up to 500 PPS. To make best use of welding booth space, SAIT created a platform to mount these 45-lb. inverters on the wall.

"Physical space is always a big problem. Now, because of space-saving inverters like the Dynasty 200, what we used to teach in three shops [with our large older equipment] we now teach in one shop," says Rhodes. "By making all five of our weld shops multi-process, we can accommodate more students and have flexibility when scheduling class locations."

SAIT also upgraded to XMT 350 CC/ inverters, pairing each of its 90 power sources with a 60 or 70 Series dual wire feeder with digital meters. One side of the feeder runs solid wire for MIG while the other runs tubular wire for flux cored. These processes parallel pipeline and pressure vessel industry needs that require a GMAW root and a flux cored fill and cap.

"We can meet the needs of industry because SAIT management has invested more than one million dollars in welding and manufacturing equipment," says Rhodes. "Without that support, our enrollment would be limited and students would train on old technology. You can't train students on vintage equipment and expect them to understand the benefits of the advanced arc controls found on today's inverters."

Rhodes also notes that SAIT is expanding on is automated welding education. The institution recently purchased a robot, an orbital TIG welder, an orbital flux cored welder a CNC cutting table and two Miller PipePro™ 450s systems for pipe welding using the innovative RMD (regulated metal deposition) to Pro-Pulse™ (pulsed MIG) processes. At NAIT, new downdraft tables will enable teaching plasma cutting using 10 Spectrum" 1000s.

NAIT welding instructor Freeman Thompson gets his first opportunity to run the school's new welding equipment. Bob Clark, associate chair of NAIT's welding program, looks on. Notice the fume extraction equipment, a standard part of every welding area.
SAIT instructor Derek Wilson demonstrates MIG welding in the 3G position. This "instructors area" at the front of a SAIT welding lab provides room for all the students to observe the instructors' technique, then go back to their booths to duplicate the procedure.

Upgrade Economics

While NAIT and SAIT are educational institutions, the drivers for retiring old equipment make them sound like the industrial companies for whom they're preparing students. In fact, like educators everywhere that face budget shortages, NAIT and SAIT recognize the economic benefits of new technology.

Rhodes notes that old equipment costs a lot to maintain, saying "We spent close to C$18,000 last year strictly on maintenance to keep 30 old GTAW units running."

Dan MacKinnon, chair of NAIT's welding program, says that, "Standardizing on just a few pieces of equipment makes our stocking easier and cheaper to manage, as does using equipment that's energy efficient. In fact, new inverters use less than half the power of our old rectifiers."

Clark notes that all the new inverters feature Auto-Line technology.

"Auto-Line technology eliminated the need to make major electrical upgrades to accommodate the GTAW equipment," he says. "We held off on our equipment acquisition for about year, waiting for the Dynasty 350 to come out. Otherwise we would have been stuck with GTAW machines that used single-phase 575 VAC primary."

To upgrade the 33 stations in a weld shop(times four weld shops(NAIT would have had to take 575 VAC three-phase power and convert it to single-phase power. "Rather than spend C$160,000 on outlets and switching boxes, we felt it was more feasible to spend that money on new machinery," says Clark.

The bottom line, says MacKinnon is that, "Training with old equipment increases a school's operating costs."

NAIT welding instructor Freeman Thompson gets his first opportunity to run the school's new digital wire feeders. Bob Clark, associate chair of NAIT's welding program, looks on.
New XMT 350 inverters and dual wire digital feeders keep SAIT on the leading edge of technology. Shown (L-R) are SAIT personnel Mike Hildebrand, welding instructor and team leader, George Rhodes, academic coordinator for welding/NDT and manufacturing and automation, and Jan Nielsen, welding instructor and team leader.

Welding Canadian Style

In America, anyone with a power source can hang up a sign and run a welding business (assuming any applicable codes and standards are met). Not so in Alberta. To start, working in a trade is governed by a body called the Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training (informally called the "apprentice board," or AIT. Visit www.tradesecrets.org for details). There are 51 designated trades, including welders.

Alberta divides welding into two branches: wire process operators and welders. Basically, wire process operators use GMAW, FCAW, SAW and other wire welding processes. Welders use those processes, plus the other common welding processes: SMAW, GTAW and oxy-acetylene welding/brazing/cutting and resistance welding.

To work in Alberta, a welder or wire process operator must be a registered apprentice, a certified journeyperson or someone who holds a recognized trade certificate. To become an apprentice, a person must have at least an Alberta grade 9 education or equivalent (or pass an entrance exam) and find a suitable employer who is willing to hire and train an apprentice.

The term of apprenticeship for welders is three years (three 12-month periods), which includes a minimum of 1,500 hours of on-the-job training and eight weeks (240 hours) of technical training each year. For wire process operators, the term is two years (two 12-month periods), including a minimum of 1,500 hours of on-the-job training and eight weeks of technical training in the first year and 1,800 hours of on-the-job training in the second year.

Becoming an apprentice involves a legal contract between the student, the employer and the provincial government. The student isn't bound to stick with one employer, but a student needs a sponsor. The sponsor promises to provide on-the-site training and pay the apprentice a percentage of the journeyperson wage rate (60 percent for first year apprentices, 75 percent for second year and 90 percent for third year). The average journeyperson's yearly salary was C$58,200 according to the 2005 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey (1 Canadian dollar equals 1.0055 U.S. dollars as of Sept. 28, 2007).

To encourage people to enter the skilled trades, the Alberta government subsidizes training by paying the technical institutions on a per-student basis. This keeps tuition and material costs to less than C$800 for an eight-week course. Considering the taxes a worker will pay on a C$58,200 salary, it's a good long-term investment.

The goal of many apprentices is not just to become a journeyperson, but also to obtain their "Red Seal." The Interprovincial Standards (Red Seal ) program allows qualified tradespersons to pass an examination that permits them to practice their trade in any province or territory in Canada (except Quebec) where the trade is designated, without having to "write" (or take) further examinations.

NAIT welding instructor Freeman Thompson provides first-year apprentice Craig Lapointe with feedback on his welding sample.
George Rhodes, academic coordinator for welding/NDT and manufacturing and automation at SAIT, says that for the skilled trades to flourish, junior high and high school counselors need to provide students with more information about the trades.

Apprenticeship Program

Working in partnership with industry and technical institutions, the apprenticeship board (AIT) determines how many apprentices will train each year. In this manner, AIT manages the process so that supply will meet (or catch up with) demand.

A single "year" of training consists of an eight-week period at one of these institutions.

For those on a welder path, first-year students typically receive one week of oxy-fuel cutting and brazing; three weeks of GMAW and FCAW training and four weeks of SMAW training. They'll also complete a 32-hour math component. Second-year training consists of two weeks of GMAW and FCAW training; two weeks of GTAW on carbon steel, stainless steel and aluminum and four weeks of SMAW. Students also complete a 16-hour estimating block and a 32-hour block on pattern development, layout and theory.

Third-year training starts off with two weeks of SMAW followed by two weeks of GTAW. While in GTAW, students perform root, fill and caps on plate and pipe in various positions. Students go back to SMAW for week five, with week six being designated for training on 6-in. schedule 80 pipe. This provides pre-training for a student wishing to obtain a "B Pressure" certification (welding pressure vessels and pipe) after they have completed their apprenticeship. They also learn how to read blueprints.

In the last two weeks of training, third-year apprentices weld coupons to get their journeyperson certification. At this point, the Alberta Government sends out its test people to administer the journeyperson tests. Students write their journeyperson exam in the morning and have the opportunity to write their Red Seal (Inter-Provincial) exam in the afternoon of the same day.

MacKinnon says that, "The government mandate for us to train generalists has worked very well for the Alberta economy because of our diversity. Everyone knows us for the oil and gas work in the tar sands, but there's welding work in agricultural, transportation, mining, forest, aerospace and aluminum boat building industries, too." That said, training heavily emphasizes the SMAW process because so much of the work in the petrochemical industry revolves around pressure vessel welding and field welding.

"Once you get your journeyperson's ticket, that's your license to learn," says Clark. "It gets you on the job, and then you can go for your Canadian Welding Bureau ticket if you want to do structural work. If you want to go into the pressure and oil and gas transmission lines, you need to get your "B Pressure" ticket, and this will open up another door."

Filling the Pipeline

Canada's tar sands may get C$48 billion of investment by 2012, according to Canada's National Energy Board. This is double the amount spent in the decade ending in 2003. The tar sands in Alberta hold 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which rivals Saudi Arabia's 240 billion barrels. Tar sands are deposits of bitumen, or viscous oil. About two tons of tar sands have to be dug up, heated and processed on location to make a single 42-gallon barrel of oil.

The tar sands have profoundly changed Alberta society, as more people recognize that skilled trades are the engine that runs the province's economic success.

"It's no longer an insult to be a tradesman," says Clark. "If you look around Edmonton, a city of 700,000+ people, there isn't a corner that doesn't have construction. People finally recognize that buildings don't go up, and oil doesn't get extracted and processed, without skilled trades(and we have a shortage."

Attracting young people (most students range from 19 to 25) into a skilled trade is easier than it used to be: just dangle the dollar signs.

As noted, the average journeyperson earns about C$58,000. For welders who specialize in GTAW, pipeline or pressure vessel welding, salaries can range from C$120,000 to C$150,000 per year.

"If a young person is ambitious and wants to run a portable welding truck," says Clark, "they'll have to outlay about C$80,000 to set it up, but the average rig welder makes C$330,000 a year right now."

Mike Hildebrand, a welding instructor and team leader at SAIT, says, "Well-paid welders work hard for every penny they make. They don't work eight to five. They work 12-hour days, six days a week. It's pretty common for a rig welder to work hard eight months out of the year, then shut down and go fishing, golfing or hunting for four months."

Unlike those who attend university, tradespersons don't carry a heavy tuition-related debt load for 10 years after graduating. Instead, they have lots of ready cash.

"There's almost no limit to how much money a young person can make," says Clark. "Like most young people, they want nice toys: a truck, motorcycle, ATV, boat or snowmobile. The difference is, welders can afford anything and everything, especially because young people aren't thinking about a family or a house."

One common misconception all the educators want to dispel is the myth of "once a tradesperson, always a tradesperson." For example, SAIT offers a two-year welding engineering technology program accredited by the American Society of Engineering Technology. Graduates tend to follow career paths in welding inspection, quality assurance, welding department supervision, R&D or technical sales support.

"There is always work for someone that just wants to burn rod, but even that job requires a lot more academic skill nowadays because of the code-type work the petrochemical industry requires," says MacKinnon. "You have to have a good academic background to make a good tradesperson. Then, for those who have the aptitude, they want to become a supervisor, and those supervisors with an entrepreneurial spirit may go on to start their own company."

To help those in designed trades grow skills beyond their technical capabilities, Alberta offers an Achievement in Business Competencies ("Blue Seal") program. As NAIT's Web site notes, "If you are a certified Alberta journeyperson in a designated trade or occupation, earning a Blue Seal proves that you not only meet Alberta's high industry standards, but you also have the drive to develop your business skills and succeed in business."

Tradespersons can earn their Blue Seal by completing 150 hours of study in the areas noted in Fig. 1.

Accounting
Human resource management
Project management
Administration
Industrial relations
Public administration
Business law
Leadership
Finance
Operations management
Economics
Management
Organizational behaviour
Entrepreneurship
Marketing
Supervision

Fig. 1. Alberta's Blue Seal program helps certified tradespersons further develop and refine their business competencies in 16 areas.

Digital controls, such as those on this 70 Series wire feeder and XMT 350 inverter, enable students to exactly duplicate the parameters set by welding instructors. This gives them more confidence when attempting to duplicate the procedure back in their own welding booth.
This SAIT apprentice practices MIG welding in the 3G position. Alberta breaks welding into two trades: wire process operators (approved to work with MIG, flux cored, sub arc and other wire process) and welders, who are approved to work with those processes, plus Stick, TIG and oxy-acetylene.

What's Wrong with Kids These Days?

Like many people with a touch of gray in their hair, the educators at NAIT and SAIT have a thing or two to say about today's generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings.

"I think we should start training people at a younger age in the practicalities of work," says Clark. "I find that work ethics are almost non-existent nowadays." From the time they were small, the parents of these educators gave them responsibilities around the house or farm. As teenagers, they worked a paper route, bagged groceries, pumped gas and more. Kids today turn 18 and realize that society expects them to work hard, yet they have zero work experience.

Hildebrand states that, "A good tradesperson has a great work ethic. Most of our students—75 to 80 percent—will find and hold a good job. Those that fail to hold a job almost always fail because of poor work ethics. The hardest thing for kids who slack on the job is to realize that they're not going to get pushed through a system like they did in school. There are consequences: they won't have a job."

In addition to ethics, Rhodes believes that society—schools, parents and peers—needs to change its attitude about personal growth.

"There is no shame in failing," he says. "Nobody wants to hold little Johnny back because his classmates are going to go on without him. Parents want to make it easier on themselves and their kids, but that's not right. Everybody learns at a different rate of speed, everybody matures at a different level and everybody learns differently. Parents and teachers should teach children to understand these differences at an early age. If it takes 13 or 14 years to get an honest grade 12 education, that's acceptable."

Clark says what's not acceptable is a society that puts out students who, "are supposed to have a grade 10 education yet can't read a tape measure. Canadian blueprints will be in millimeters, but you often need to order materials in imperial. The people coming out of high school need to have practical, applied math skills to convert between metric and imperial. It seems like kids nowadays think they can make a million dollars sitting in front of a TV screen with a video game."

What's Wrong with Schools?

Historically, parents created the stigma against going into a skilled trade. Today, vocational educators like Rhodes and Hildebrand believe that the education system is now the bottleneck.

"High school and junior high school counselors don't realize the careers available in the skilled trades," Hildebrand says. "We're a huge industry, but it's amazing when you talk to counselors at the junior high and high school level and find out that they don't even know what welding is. I think school systems first have to realize that any trade is valuable. Then, counselors have to advise kids that(if they have a good work ethic(they'll make a better living as a tradesperson than people with a university degree" (see Fig. 2).

Retail Sales /Clerk C$12
Data Entry Clerk C$13
Accounting Clerk C$16
Bookkeeper C$16
Truck Driver C$19
Plumber C$19
Carpenter C$19
Electrician C$20
Executive Assistant C$20
Social Worker C$24
Architect C$26
Registered Nurse C$27
Computer and Info
Systems Manager C$37
Computer Engineer (not software) C$29
Engineering Manager C$35
Physiotherapist C$27
Lawyer C$40
Dentist C$60

Fig. 2. Average hourly wages in Canada for various professions in 2004 (according to www.livingin-canada.com). The average wage for a journeyperson welder is about C$30/hour.

"What bothers me," adds Rhodes, "is that secondary school systems poured millions of dollars into funding computer labs starting in the late 1990s. But now you go these schools and find out that all the funding was diverted from their trade-related labs. School boards don't fund machine shops, motor vehicle shops, carpentry shops and welding labs anymore. The money is there, but some school boards still look down on the trades because they don't see the value of a tradesperson."

One tactic for generating interest in the trades at all levels is explaining what the skilled trades are and how an apprenticeship works.

"We've even gone to elementary schools and, at their request, sent an instructor out to explain the welding trade and the careers available," says Rhodes.

To encourage high school students to enter the skilled trades, AIT created the Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP). RAP enables high school students to earn a high school diploma at the same time they earn credits toward apprenticeship training, thereby gaining some real-world work experience. Students are required to finish core subjects through grade 12. Upon graduation, the prospective employer will sponsor their apprenticeship. But if students quit high school, the employer is not allowed to hire them.

"The RAP program," says Rhodes, "has been extremely successful in promoting trades to the high schools and the general public. It gives kids an incentive to stay in school. It instills a work ethic, responsibility and teaches kids that actions have consequences, and it's producing the welders Alberta desperately needs."

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