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Chris Van Pelt hopes to launch a successful career in the wake of the "silver tsunami," the outgoing wave of retiring welders in their 50s and 60s that has built everything from skyscrapers and bridges to aerospace parts and metallic works of art.
The Riverview High School graduate is enrolled in a welding course at Hillsborough Community College. This summer, he will take a qualifying exam at HCC's new testing site certified by the American Welding Society (AWS), the industry's standard-bearer.
Without a local testing center, trainees and industry workers have had to go elsewhere to take the basic welding skills exam and other AWS tests. The county's first testing site, at 5610 E. Columbus Drive, will change that when it opens to the public in July.
HCC has received more than $1.2 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Florida Legislature, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, and JPMorgan Chase to expand the welding program and provide space for other workforce programs at the college.
Ginger Clark, vice president of Workforce Training at HCC, says the testing site is another way to help the next generation of welders get a start. "We try to remove all the barriers we can," Ginger says.
Qualified welders are much in demand in Hillsborough County. Manufacturing, with welding as a key skill set, is growing so fast here that some companies have trouble finding local workers to fill open positions. The Manufacturing Alliance of Hillsborough County formed in 2016 to address this "skills gap" by coordinating with schools, manufacturers, and workforce development partners to create a pipeline of talent to fill these positions. Hillsborough County Economic Development provides critical leadership and financial support of the Manufacturing Alliance.
The new testing site will help move qualified welders into these open positions.
Logan Harry, an instructor with HCC's welding program, says the site does three things. It:
- Enables company recruiters, at a glance, to know potential hires can do basic skills.
- Helps educators tailor lessons to companies' needs. That's because industry professionals and welding instructors, prompted by training and testing efforts, communicate frequently.
- Gives jobseekers a solid credential - assuming they pass and receive an AWS qualification - that helps them find a good, well-paying position.
Randy Kelley, recruitment and development manager for Tampa Tank, Florida Structural Steel, says passing the AWS basic skills test is an impressive first step. "I'm going to perk my ears up a bit," he says.
Welding is in demand in Hillsborough County, despite manufacturing downturns in some parts of the country. A huge port and burgeoning high-tech sector are the primary reasons. Local industries rely on welders to get the job done, and having a local testing center helps put them to work.