JANESVILLE — Blackhawk Technical College is responding to demand from students and industry by increasing by 50 percent the number of welders it trains this year.
Blackhawk turns out about 40 welders a year, with two cohorts of 20 students each, said Kirke "Bo" Plank, dean of advanced manufacturing. One cohort is trained on the morning shift, one on an evening shift.
Classes are full, and there's a waiting list, Plank said. Just a few weeks before the fall semester began, BTC decided to open a third section of welding.
Plank moved the morning shift to an earlier time to make room for a third cohort in a midday shift.
The first cohort will begin at 6 a.m. and the last will finish at 9 p.m. A full-time instructor has been hired, for a total of three, Plank said.
The fall semester begins Monday. As of Friday, six seats were still not filled for the new 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. cohort.
Anyone who wants to join the new group already would need to have applied to BTC, said Sharon Kennedy, vice president of learning.
"The demand for welders has just gotten unbelievable," Plank said. "We just can't prepare enough of them right now to fill the needs."
BTC also offers an all-day welding program on Saturdays, but that does not include the full curriculum. The Saturday program is full.
"We are doing as much in welding as we possibly could. At least, we feel we are," Kennedy said.
Plank said he hoped manufacturers will take note of BTC's increased output and make plans to expand.
Many welding students work internships or hold part-time jobs before they finish the course, Plank said. That gives employers a chance to "try before they buy," he said.
It also means the grads are snapped up as soon as they graduate, Plank said.
"I think the jobs are there right now, locally and also in our state and region," he said. "And nationally, the outlook is forecasted to be very strong for a number of years."
Manufacturers who have landed defense contracts in the Fox Valley and in the shipyard in Marinette are looking for more welders. Shipyards in the southeast United States also are big employers, Plank said.
"If anyone wants to work, they can, no question about it," Plank said.
"Pay is all over the board," but entry level is around $15 an hour, and advancement is often swift, Plank said.
Plank said BTC has a modern welding lab with good maintenance support, "but when you're going that many hours a day, obviously that's going to put a strain on it."
Plank is investigating the possibility of buying computer-based welding simulators, which are said to be effective but very expensive.
Blackhawk, which serves most of Rock and Green counties, built a new welding lab in existing space at its main campus in 2008 at a cost of about $800,000. Then, as now, the national forecast was that demand for welders would be high.
There's no additional space that could be used to expand welding on campus, Kennedy said, but Blackhawk has plans for an advanced manufacturing center that would include welding.
The center would be housed in the Ironworks building in downtown Beloit. Officials are hoping to raise $10 million to $12 million for the project, mostly from local, private sources.
Work on the center would not start before next spring and could take a year to complete.