Chris Gray, Ph.D. l Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the corporate headquarters of Lincoln Electric. Lincoln Electric is a major welding company whose headquarters are just down the road from us in Cleveland, Ohio. Mark Rainey, the CEO of Erie Welder Supply, coordinated the trip for County Executive Davis and the College. When we arrived, we were welcomed onto Lincoln Electric’s campus by their Vice-President for Education as well as their Chief Executive Officer.

Lincoln Electric absolutely gets it. They get that our current model of education often does not prepare people well to enter the workforce. LE’s entire education center has been designed to try to meet the needs of local employers directly.

In a typical welding program at a community college, you might expect to find semester-long classes that last the full sixteen weeks and require students to attend class two or three days a week for multiple hours at a time. Each course covers a large amount of material that includes some theory but mainly hands-on practice. This requires a fairly significant commitment for a student in terms of time. In fact, the model itself follows the typical design, assuming that a student is pursuing coursework full-time and is not yet employed.

However, experience tells us that many of our students in career and technical education curricula are already working in one of our local businesses and are trying to retrain or to skill-up. Community colleges responded to this reality by offering evening and weekend courses. However, there is another way to think about it, and Lincoln Electric has led the way in doing that. Instead of identifying ten very broadly focused required courses as is usually done in a community college model, Lincoln Electric worked with employers and broke down welding skills into a series of approximately forty certificates. The certificates range from blueprint reading to basic safety to setup to GMAW and so on. And, Lincoln Electric is willing to share these curricular models with training institutions. The curricular model creates partnerships across the industry and connects educators and businesses to find out exactly which skills are most sought after within our local regions. Then, EC3 builds a curriculum that is immediately and directly designed for employers.

This sounds so simple and obvious, but it’s really a new way of thinking for education. In fact, Lincoln Electric’s CEO shared that this is a new way of thinking for them as well, and it took bringing on a VP of Education to really merge the teaching world with the welding world.

What is neat about the module-based certificates is that a student can obtain the overall skill, learn how to weld, and prepare to enter the workforce. Or, with module-based education, a company can send individual employees back to retrain or develop a specific skill.

In addition to this new curricular model, Lincoln Electric has also fine tuned the booth setup. Through many years of trial and error, they now have literally written a book on the best setup and are helping educational institutions to design their welding booths. Now, yes, their design would be intended for their brand of equipment, however; the consistency and sharing is what is really important. Instead of individual institutions trying to figure out how to best design a welding booth, we have a national leader sharing its trade secrets. Lincoln Electric has done the trial-and-error calculations; they have over- and under-designed; they have figured out what works and what does not for the various types of welding equipment, and they are sharing that knowledge. This is a great example of the collaboration and partnerships that will be necessary as we move America forward.

Finally, I’d like to share a bit about some of the new cutting-edge equipment that we saw. First, virtual welders have come so far since I was first introduced to them a decade ago, and I admit that I have always been skeptical of virtual welder training. Some of the for-profit trade schools teach their students exclusively on virtual welders, and I do not believe we should put anybody in the workforce who has not touched, felt, and smelled the steel and who also has hours of hands-on experience. So, you can imagine my shock when their Vice-President of Education shared that, when students started on virtual welders compared to students who started in the actual welding shop, their success rates and completion and quality of their work were all significantly higher.

The VP went on to explain that those who started on the virtual system were allowed to learn in a more encouraging environment where less pressure and less risk allowed them to push themselves further. When I was able to see the virtual welder hands-on, I totally understood. This machine was amazing! The student holds welding equipment that looks and feels as if it were the real thing and practices the art of welding. The machine gives immediate feedback on speed, distance, angle, and everything you could need. The virtual world can be projected for others to see, allowing for instructors to get feedback or for other students to learn during the demonstration. These virtual welders are gamechangers. Welder Supply has one in their showroom and takes it to manufacturing demos. I definitely encourage you to check it out.

We ended our day at the automated welding lab. This is where we are living in the future. In order to fuel the immense demand in manufacturing, automation will be needed. The automated welder was phenomenal. It is basically a robotic arm that can be programmed so that you have consistent welds each and every time. So instead of a welder just needing to know the art of welding, now future welders will need to know a little bit of programming, basic electronics, and problem-solving — in addition to learning to understand how a robot thinks — along with the hands-on technical skills of the profession.

I am totally impressed with Lincoln Electric’s commitment to education and willingness to partner and share knowledge. I am also thankful for the leadership of Mark Rainey at Erie Welder Supply and County Executive Brent Davis, both of whom understand the need for partnership and ensuring that our training programs align directly with employer needs. Erie County Community College will continue to explore this partnership, interact with our high school partners, and will soon host an educational forum with Lincoln Electric and local employers to see if LE curriculum is right for northwest Pennsylvania.

Slowly but surely, we are making a dream come true. Our community: your college.