- Associated Press - Saturday, September 5, 2020

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - Western Welding Academy looks less like a learning institution and more like a real-world job site, and that’s the goal, said Tyler Sasse, owner and founder of the school.

“We run this whole place just like a job site,” he said. “We look at every applicant that comes in through the lens of, if I were a superintendent or an employer, would I hire that person?”

Since it opened up 11 months ago on North Highway 14-16 just outside Gillette, Western Welding Academy had 15 students graduate. It now has about three dozen students, 85% of whom are from other states like Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida.

That people are willing to spend a few months in northeast Wyoming to learn how to weld shows Sasse that they have the commitment and dedication he wants from his students.

“We don’t want the people that are halfway committed,” he said.

Sasse recalled seeing a company in Pennsylvania looking to fill a high-pressure pipe welder position. It was advertising internationally, the Gillette News Record reports.

“They said they’d pay for border crossings, green cards, passports - whatever it took to get these workers from all over the world and bring them to America because America couldn’t produce enough youth to man these blue-collar jobs, he said. “That’s a travesty, in my opinion.”

Many students enter college without a plan or direction and hope they’ll figure it out once they’re there. Sasse said he wants to change that mindset.

“It’s social transformation is what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ve funneled all our young people into these colleges, and that’s great. We need doctors, lawyers and accountants. But the world needs 1,000 ditch diggers for every accountant out there.”

Sasse said he looked at universities as an example of “what not to do.” There are three other welding schools in the United States that are owned by welding professionals, and he looked to them as examples.

“After analyzing all the different training programs in the country, we felt there was a big need for some real hard-hitting, real-world training,” he said.

The academy is built upon the belief that no one is entitled to anything, and that if someone wants something, he or she must be willing to work for it, Sasse said.

The school’s average student is 20 or 21 years old, but some are as young as 18 and as old as 47. Some students come to him straight out of high school, while others are looking to make a mid-life career shift.

Sasse said there are now 35 to 38 students, and they run in shifts Monday through Friday. One shift is on site from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. The second shift goes from 2-10 p.m. In January, Sasse plans to add a third eight-hour shift, meaning the school will have students welding 24 hours, five days a week.

“Everything we do is formed around this real-world experience,” he said. “There’s very little book learning. It’s all hands-on.”

The academy currently offers six courses. The most popular is a five-month program designed for those who have zero experience welding. By the time they graduate, they’ll have had 1,000 hours of experience.

“Our intention is to give them two years of experience in that five months so when they hit the ground, they can hit the ground running,” Sasse said.

Then there’s an accelerated and condensed eight-week program for people with some welding experience. They often have spent a year or two at community college or previously worked in the industry.

Other courses include fabrication pipefitting, structural welding and pipeline construction.

They’re trained on equipment from Miller Electric and Lincoln Electric, the two largest manufacturers of arc welding equipment.

There are pipe rack simulators that allow students to learn how to weld in different situations, including from a high place and in a small, confined space.

Sasse estimates the school goes through 150 pounds of welding rod a day. Students learn to weld stainless steel, carbon steel and other materials on pipe from 2 inches in diameter to 20 inches.

Students have their welds X-rayed every other week so they can see mistakes that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

“They get used to having their welds X-rayed over and over and over and learning how to go back in and fix that,” he said. “That makes a huge difference when they’re on the job.

“That’s a defect,” Sasse said, pointing to one weld X-ray. “If you pump 5,000 pounds of steam in there and that thing blows up and kills a bunch of people, that’s going to be a bad day.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic put many people out of work, “the essential worker never stopped,” Sasse said.

During the pandemic, people were still buying manufactured products. From toilet paper and clothing to computer chips and medicine, “that sector of the economy, it didn’t miss a beat,” Sasse said.

“Every man-made product, from rubber on the bottom of your shoes to the drywall to any kind of wood product, all that stuff has to go through a manufacturing plant,” he said. “In that plant, they’ve got high-pressure pipe. All that pipe needs welded.”

And companies need people to weld those pipes, Sasse said. Now, pipe welders are in higher demand than before the pandemic.

He added that while the oil and gas industry uses high-pressure pipes, it’s a “very small sector” compared to what Western Welding Academy teaches.

All of the academy’s instructors need a minimum of seven years of experience with high-pressure pipe welding. Sasse said it’s very difficult to find people willing to leave a high-paying welding job to teach, but they are out there.

“A lot of them, they want to work an eight-hour day, they want a slower-paced job and they’re passionate about sharing their knowledge,” he said.

On a wall, there’s a bulletin board with paychecks from former students. It’s used as motivation for current students, Sasse said.

“If you’ve got the gumption to travel to Gillette, Wyoming, you can spend five months and $15,000, and you can walk out of here and make $100,000 a year. We see it all the time,” he said.

On average, the time between a student graduating and starting a new job is three days, Sasse said. The longest wait has been three weeks.

Not everyone will become a high-pressure pipe welder right away. Sasse wants to train students to the highest skill level of welding so that when they leave, they can get a job doing any kind of welding, from ornamental to structural to pipe.

Sasse said he’s pleased with the progress his school’s made since opening last September.

The other welding schools across the country that he researched have been around for five to seven years.

“Where they’re at today, we’ve gotten to in 11 months,” he said. “We wanted to deliver high level education with real results. Nothing else matters.”

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