Sparking interest

Freshman Chelsea Harpe simply wanted to try something new. Fellow freshman Dylan Ritchie joined the class so he could help his dad out, and to follow in his mother’s footsteps. Both students, along with 38 more like them, found what they needed in Coupeville High School’s latest curriculum offering that’s sparking plenty of interest — welding.

Thursday, the bell rang to welcome the afternoon welding students to class. As they pulled on their protective leather jackets and gloves, they chatted about the possibilities welding brings.

One boy said he wants to do underwater welding. Another chided him for its dangers.

“Yeah, but you can’t beat the pay, it starts around $60 an hour,” he said.

More than that, according to their instructor.

“Apprentices make 60 percent the rate of a journeyman so beginning pay can be substantial,” said Tom Eller, Coupeville High School teacher.

Eller has a special place in his heart for any student who wants to become a pipefitter welder — he was one for 20 years and his career took him around the world.

This year is the first that Coupeville High School students could choose welding, which joined the roster of technical classes that already includes woodshop, materials science and technology.

When enrollment started, 77 students signed up but many were placed on a waiting list, as there was only room for just under 40 in the two class periods welding is offered.

Eller has a few guesses about the class’ popularity.

“It’s pretty cool to say you can weld,” he said. “You can use it as just a hobby, or you can take it further and make a career out of it, getting a saving wage job of $20 or more when you’re just starting.”

Eller said some of his students aren’t necessarily sure that welding is the career path they’ll follow, but they’re taking it seriously enough to fall back on it if they wanted.

“That’s not a bad back up plan at all,” Eller said.

Eller said schools are beginning to shift education opportunities to better fit their students and the needs of the workforce.

This summer, Eller attended a vocation conference and had members of the AFLCIO clamoring for qualified help.

“All of the trade labors are begging us to get kids into our programs so we can get them into their industries,” he said. “Without them, they can’t survive.”

The welding class is year-long, and if students earn a grade of B or better, they will receive six quarter credits from Skagit Valley College in welding technology.

“It’s like Running Start only they stay here on the campus,” Eller said. “We’re beginning to offer more opportunities like this.”

Junior Erin Engle said she joined the class because it “sounded interesting and isn’t something that you get to do every day.”

“I’m really enjoying it, and can’t wait until I can try wire feed welding,” she said.

Like other Coupeville students, Engle’s family has a farm and family members, eager for her skills.

“There’s many students here whose dads and uncles can’t wait until they know how to weld so they can teach them,” Eller said with a laugh.

Engle and fellow junior Maria Kidder admit that for them the class is more of a pastime right now.

“It’s so gratifying when you get the weld right,” Kidder said.

Thursday, Engle was feeling the bliss of that gratification as she lightly flaked away the intact flux of a perfect weld.

“That’s great, looks good,” Eller said.

Eller has been a teacher at Coupeville High School for 19 years. Having degrees in chemistry and physics, he was a science teacher before he evolved into the continuing technical education field — the new name for what was formerly called vocational technical education.

“It’s good because I can explain to kids the science behind things like welding,” he said.

Although Eller admits his students are but skimming the surface when it comes to welding technology learning, he’s quick to acknowledge the value of the skills they are obtaining.

First, they learn the basics: submerged metal arch welding, which uses an arch and a stick weld. Then they move onto gas metal arch welding, which uses a wire feed welding system.

“This is the preferred method in the industry because they can put their hood down and work forever,” Eller said. “There’s miles and miles of wire spooled in these machines so they get more production per hour than stick welding.”

Eller said that some of his students have close to four years’ experience welding through their other materials tech classwork.

Career possibilities are endless for those with welding skills, according to the instructor. Welders are in demand in the ship building industry, as iron workers, pipefitters, millwrights, machinists, carpenters and more.

Eller already had students working at Nichols Bros. Boat Builders before it closed. Two seniors are currently working as apprentices with local unions.

“It doesn’t matter what the student’s academic standing is when they walk through that door,” he said. “Everyone has a chance to be successful in here.”

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