Industrial Arts Institute in Onaway, Michigan, is seeing a new type of student interested in their 2021 welding training programs: the worker that’s been displaced by the pandemic.

Workers in customer-facing industries are finding themselves in the unemployment line once again as COVID cases escalate and statewide lockdown mandates go into effect.  With so much uncertainty around the pandemic still looming, IAI’s executive director, Mark Dombroski, is not surprised to see some of them considering a different line of work.

“Anyone looking for employment stability should explore the trades,” he said.  “Even throughout the pandemic, industries are struggling to find workers with trade skills to fill open positions.”

Clio resident Matt Johnson is currently enrolled in Industrial Arts Institute’s comprehensive welding program with an eye on filling one of those open positions.  He was among the 800,000 Michigan workers laid off in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.  “I came into the office right after everything started,” he said, “and my manager told me I was furloughed. He said he didn’t mind if I went looking for something else.”

At 29, he had made the start of a career for himself in auto sales, and the state’s stay-at-home orders ground business to a halt.  “All of a sudden, people were getting 30 days to the gallon,” he joked. 

He decided it was time for something new and chose welding as his career path.  “I’d tried it in high school and liked it,” he said.  “And I knew welders were in demand.”

Like so many skilled trade jobs, prospects for those in the welding field are good: The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that welding jobs will grow by at least 6% over the next 15 years. And Johnson found that the re-education process was not arduous – IAI offers a comprehensive welding program that produces certified, industry-ready graduates in 19 weeks.

He enrolled.

“Matt was among the first who came to IAI looking to make a career change, but he won’t be the last,” said Dombroski.  “I recently spoke with another student who just lost his job because of COVID. He loves to work with his hands, and he wants the stability that a career in welding offers.  We’re ready to prepare him for that.”

Welders remain in demand across the state. IMM, Inc., a Grayling, Michigan, company specializing in installations, metal fabrication, machine building and custom fabrications, has felt the impact of the skilled trade shortage.  “We have a continuous need for welders,” said IMM, Inc. president Elizabeth Doering.  “This position is hard to fill as the number of people going into the skilled trades declines.”

Industrial Arts Institute partners with area industries and recruiters to place newly certified welders after graduation, and while Johnson has spoken to several recruiters, he’s made no decision on which opportunities he might pursue. “One of the things that’s appealing about welding is that it’s a portable skill,” he said.  “There are opportunities here in northern Michigan and there are opportunities in my hometown.  This time I’m going to settle into the right job for me.”

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