Taking Up the Torch, Going on the Road

Wisconsin college tackles welder shortage through mobile training program
Sep 19, 2022 3:05 PM ET
Person welding

According to the American Welding Society, the United States will face a shortage of 400,000 skilled welders by 2024.

The deficit is already affecting business and industry in northern Wisconsin, as Northwood Technical College learned when it consulted with companies in and around the district.

The college also heard from local Native American bands, like St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, that they had people keen to learn to weld but faced transportation barriers and couldn’t travel to the college.

This was a problem Northwood Tech could solve—by taking their welding program on the road.

Over the past year, Northwood Tech has been designing a welding program on wheels.

The college will deliver its technical diploma out of a custom, 53-foot trailer that will hold eight fully equipped welding booths, and eight to 10 students at a time. It will be bookable and move from place to place, allowing students to complete short-term customized training or the entire program in increments until they achieve their diploma—without ever having to set foot on the Northwood Tech campus.

By bringing education to the students, more people will develop their skills and experience and launch a career in an in-demand field or expand their knowledge of the trade with short-term training, explains Karen Hoglund, Northwood Tech’s dean of academic programming.

“We’re trying to serve the needs of the students where they’re at,” she adds. “We’ll do the training wherever—anywhere someone wants to hold it.”

The college has earmarked $900,000 from two larger grants to support the program and outfit the mobile lab.

Enbridge, a longtime partner of Northwood Tech, awarded the college a $40,000 Fueling Futures grant to purchase the commercial generator that will power the unit.

“We seek opportunities to benefit the communities near our operations, and helping develop the potential of students is one of our focus areas. It’s fitting we could step in to fund the power source behind this innovative program—a piece of equipment that will quite literally fuel the futures of students,” says Michelle Johnson, a Wisconsin-based community engagement representative with Enbridge.

Once the unit launches in January 2023, it may park on Tribal lands for a month, then visit a correctional facility for a few weeks, before being stationed near a rural high school or business.

“It could stay for days or weeks, or a month. It depends on the need,” Hoglund explains.

Though the outfitting and customization of the welding lab is still underway, Hoglund is already envisioning the next mobile program Northwood Tech could offer.

Perhaps HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) training, she muses—it’s another in-demand skillset.

Another vision of hers is for the mobile welding lab project to come full circle, back to the people who inspired it. She hopes graduates will one day work in the community, perhaps even alongside our Enbridge team.

“We need to be able to turn welders into the industry in a more efficient manner,” says Hoglund. “The mobile welding lab allows us to do that.”