New welding lab for high school students is a ‘big deal’

Kent Career Tech Center welding instructor Jim Swenson has a new virtual welding lab to help high school students learn the art of welding

Kent ISD board president Andrea Haidle is not about to take up welding. But she was eager to see the new virtual welding laboratory that was recently installed by the Kent Career Tech Center.

“This is a big deal,” said Haidle, who donned a welding mask and tried the equipment, which uses simulated welding tools and video game technology to teach the art of fusing metal.

“Welding is an important skill,” she said. “More manufacturers seem to want to have people with this skill. This fills a niche we didn’t have.”

Welding is back in demand as the U.S. manufacturing sector is being restored, according to industry experts, who estimate more than 400,000 welding jobs will need to be filled by 2025.

While welding is often self-taught and is offered at the community college level, the Tech Center has not offered welding courses in recent years for its high school students. The new lab will be used for a full two-year program scheduled to begin in the fall of 2019.

Jim Swenson, a veteran welder and teacher who was hired from Newaygo County’s Career-Tech Center, says Kent County’s manufacturing base is ripe for the program. His welding students in Newaygo County were finding jobs in Kent County, he said.

“We’re sitting in one of the biggest markets in the U.S.,” Swenson said. “Eighty-five percent of all consumer goods are affected by welding.” This means welders are highly desired in the workforce, often making six-figure incomes with only a high school degree, he said.

On the virtual equipment, students also learn safety basics without running the risk of injury, Swenson said. “Safety is our No. 1 factor,” he said. While welding relies on technical skills and knowledge, it is also an art, he said.

Kent Career Tech Center welding instructor Jim Swenson explains how the virtual welding equipment helps students learn the art of welding

Saves time, money

The $463,000 virtual welding lab was installed in recent months with the help of a $300,000 state grant.  The equipment purchased is compatible with the equipment being used at Grand Rapids Community College.

Before welding classes begin next fall, the Tech Center will have to purchase real welding equipment on which the students can hone their skills, Swenson said. “There’s no job out there for virtual welding,” he quipped.

Nonetheless, the virtual welding lab will save time and money because it simulates the process, which consumes a lot of electricity and creates a lot of waste as students learn the fine art of holding an electrified stick of metal that gets hot enough to melt and join two other pieces of metal.

The virtual tools use only standard household currents rather than high voltage current. They don’t create hot sparks, smoke and fumes associated with welding. They mimic welding on pieces of plastic that never wear out or need to be scrapped. The equipment also can mimic the various types of welding techniques used to bond different materials.

Students using the virtual tools use a simulated welding mask as they wield the welding gun and practice on a piece of plastic. The computerized program grades them on five techniques that need to be mastered for high quality welding.

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James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio.

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