When Justin Johnson learned about the demand for welders, he dropped out of school for an 18-week apprenticeship and training program with Plumbers & Steamfitters Local No. 150 on Telfair Street.
He had had three classes to go to finish his associate’s degree in nursing but drove 90 minutes each way from Garfield, Ga., to complete the welding program.
He landed a job at Parsons Corp. in Aiken this week.
“It’s good pay and a career. Something that you will have a job all your life,” Johnson said. “Everybody thinks you have to go to college to get a good job, but you don’t. You can do a trade like this.
“Actually, we’ll be making more than most college graduates.”
Welders are in high demand, but there aren’t enough trained workers to fill pipe welding positions locally or nationwide, said Jeff Rice, the training coordinator at Local No. 150 in Augusta.
With Plant Vogtle, Parsons Corp.’s work on the salt waste processing facility at Savannah River Site and the mixed oxide project at SRS, the area will need 400 to 600 welders in coming years. Plant Vogtle will need 200, Rice said.
Welders can make $26.74 an hour, plus $13 an hour in benefits. They can earn up to $33 an hour, he said.
Parsons Corp. needs 65 to 70 welders for its project, but it can find only 44, said Chuck Swain, the director of construction at Parsons Corp. for the salt waste processing facility.
To meet the demand, Parsons has worked with the Plumbers & Steamfitters local to offer an 18-week pipe-welding training program, the likes of which can cost $120,000 to $150,000 per session, though it’s free for trainees.
They are training welders to meet the nuclear quality assurance requirement, which is the highest level of inspection, Swain said.
“It’s the most rigid, and it’s very, very difficult for a lot of people to pass the criteria that we have,” Swain said. “These guys are going to be top line welders.”
They haven’t been able to get local technical colleges to teach pipe welding classes because of the cost of setting up the facilities.
Classes are taught in facilities at the Plumbers & Steamfitters. The third 18-week course will start in mid-October.
Ashton Stephens, who lives in Waynesboro, Ga., completed an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2011 but wasn’t able to find a job because he didn’t have work experience, he said.
He enrolled in the 18-week welding program and was hired by Parsons Corp. this week.
“I’m just glad they saw potential in me,” he said.