Why is there a shortage of qualified welders in America? For Scott Laslo, a welding instructor at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, the main reasons are welding technicians’ retirements, recruiting difficulties amid rising industry demand, and the “long, long time” that it takes to develop the skills of a welder.
He and his colleagues can’t do anything about retirements and they’ve had some success with targeted recruiting campaigns. To address the third point—to educate a new generation of welders, as efficiently as possible—Laslo is leading an Advanced Technological Education (ATE) project funded by the National Science Foundation that uses digital welding trainers and virtual tracking systems to provide students with more personalized feedback to accelerate their learning.
“The old way of teaching welding is too slow. We have to find a way to get it done faster…The stakes are very high. The standards are very high. We cannot change those standards. They are there for life safety. What we do as a welding professional, it affects the life of every person on the planet, so we have to do our job to the highest skill possible,” Laslo said.
He and the other welding instructors at Columbus State Community College, are partnering with Weld-Ed, the National Center for Welding Education and Training at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, on the project that began in October 2020 with faculty professional development.
Now at Columbus State, not only are instructors’ lectures and demonstrations recorded, but students record their own work during multi-hour welding labs. Welding instructors review the videos and data about their welding techniques from the trainers, and provide students with written critiques using a rubric the project has created. “This assessment-driven approach is expected to contribute the development of standardized welding practices,” according to the project’s NSF award abstract (2000535).
Laslo explained that during a typical four-hour lab with 10 students, a welding instructor can spend only five to 10 minutes observing and talking to each student about his or her work. “That’s not a lot of contact with the content expert,” he said, pointing out that for the other three hours and 50 minutes, a student could be doing something incorrectly.
Now with the data and recordings, instructors and students can focus on correct welds and what exactly is happening when errors occur.
Faculty Flips the Script with Industry
Laslo says the faculty have also “flipped the script” with industry. They are having expert welders from the most frequent employers of Columbus State welding graduates come to campus and record how they do the welding tasks they expect new employees to do.
The faculty members are combining the performance data and recordings of the experts’ welding demonstrations into “training profiles.” The profiles are then used for classroom instruction and for students to access and learn from independently, especially when they prepare for job interviews. The companies also have access to the profiles to share them with their incumbent technicians and other prospective hires.
Laslo notes that the data and videos help students and other job applicants know more about employers’ expectations before interviews, which usually require applicants to demonstrate their welding skills.
“The super cool bonus for us,” Laslo said, is that students can watch the recordings of faculty, experts, and themselves doing different types of welding segmented in ways that they control, to improve their knowledge and skills.
Marine Veteran Mary Loy Excels
Marine veteran Mary Loy is an example of a student who has taken to this paradigm shift. She likes being able to re-watch lectures, pause, and review the instructors’ and other experts’ demonstrations and her own work.
“She’s the one that has driven her success,” Laslo said.
Loy knew nothing about welding when she enrolled in Laslo’s introductory course to round out her skills for the construction management degree she completed in May 2022.
“Initially it was really scary, but it’s really cool when you are welding and you start running a bead,” she said, adding that there is a beauty to the molten metal forming a weld puddle that can be manipulated to join objects. After one week in Laslo’s introductory course, Loy called her advisor to add welding as a major. Later she decided to pursue an associate degree in welding that she will complete in May 2023. During an August 2022 interview Loy described herself as “ecstatic” about the seven welding courses she will be taking this academic year.
Loy was never bothered by the protective gear that is a non-starter for some people. “I love my welding helmet,” she said, explaining she has great dexterity thanks to purchasing her own welding gloves to fit her extra-small hands. Loy has found that her petite size—she is five-feet, two inches tall—is an asset in the construction industry, especially when a job involves plumbing. “I can fit in small spaces. I have small hands and good grip. I can get in there and get stuff out,” she said.
Columbus State Welding Students Assist with Ohio State Research
As Loy’s welding skills have improved, her interest in learning the science behind welding has grown. Loy was one of eight Columbus State welding students selected in 2021-2022 for Weld-Ed’s START program with Ohio State University’s Manufacturing and Materials Joining Innovation Center.
START stands for Skills Training in Advanced Research and Technology. It is funded with a supplemental grant that Weld-Ed received when it responded to an NSF request for proposals for community colleges to partner with Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers.
During their paid internships the Columbus State students, who excel at manual welding, work with post-doctoral engineering researchers, graduate and undergraduate students.
Loy, for example, worked with a post-doctoral researcher who is devising improvements for the mechanical arms of robotic welders, and engineering undergraduates, who are focusing on improvements to the robotic welders’ software. Loy helped the welding novices learn more welding basics and proper techniques; and the engineering students explained computer programming to her.
Other Columbus State students interned with researchers who focused on laser welding, thermal cutting, and weld analyses using destructive and non-destructive testing, Laslo said. Ten more Columbus State students will serve as paid interns/research lab assistants during 2022-2023.
“This was a natural fit for Weld-Ed, Lorain County Community College, and Ohio State because we have partnered with them in the past, and Ohio State’s Manufacturing and Materials Joining Innovation Center is an IUCRC. Columbus State has an AAS [associate of applied science degree] in welding technologies, plus they are geographically local to Ohio State where the internships took place, which made them an obvious and amazing partner on this project,” Weld-Ed Interim Director Michael Fox wrote in an email.
“It was a very, very good opportunity for our students, as well as an opportunity for two colleges to work together,” Laslo said of this first collaboration between the welding faculties of Columbus State and Ohio State.
“It has been a great experience for everybody…Hopefully we will make [the OSU students] better engineers and ultimately [the Columbus State students] better skilled welders,” Laslo said.