A shortage of skilled welders prompted an Illinois company, First Institute Training & Management, to put one of its welding programs on wheels. The training trailer took to the road and made an appearance Thursday in Omaha.

The institute was invited to Omaha by Accelerate Nebraska, a nonprofit that aims to ensure that high school and college students have the skills employers are looking for, and by the Avenue Scholars Foundation, which helps at-risk youths finish high school, get into college and find jobs.

It wasn’t just would-be welders touring the mobile training facility Thursday as it sat parked at 7101 Mercy Road. Business, manufacturing and educational representatives took the opportunity to peek.

“What we’ve heard today from our business leaders is this is an interesting concept. We’re going to see what we can come up with — very swiftly — over the next few weeks,” said Catherine Lang, Accelerate’s vice president.

The concept is applicable to many skills, she said.

“We all know about the shortages of certain kinds of skilled labor, such as welding. The mobile lab is a possible solution,” Greg Adams, president and executive director of Accelerate Nebraska, told visitors, including officials from Valmont Industries, Lozier Corp., Hawkins Construction Co. and Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College.

Lang said the Omaha nonprofits had a discussion with companies and educators about a mobile welding concept in Scottsbluff, then discovered that First Institute Training & Management already had a mobile welding laboratory. “We invited them to Omaha to do a demonstration and meet with businesspeople.”

The size of a bus, the trailer houses a small classroom and four stations where students can practice welding.

The Welding on Wheels lab can train up to eight students for entry-level welding positions in five weeks for about $45,000 plus expenses, said Kurt Beier, executive director of First Institute Training & Management Inc., based in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

An employer, educational institution or agency typically covers the cost of the basic welding program.

“We’ll drive it to you — to a school, to a company,” Beier said. “All we need is a restroom. That’s the only thing it doesn’t have.”

Students attend the mobile lab five days a week, eight hours a day, for five weeks, he said. They learn welding techniques, safety procedures and how to read blueprints. They typically receive an entry-level welding certificate.

Part-time welding programs at a community college or vocational school typically require more than 20 weeks to complete.

Thursday, officials with Accelerate Nebraska and Avenue Scholars offered five tours throughout the day. Nearly 70 people participated.

Many educators, in particular, said the brightly colored training lab — especially when the sparks fly — is the kind of facility that can attract young people who want to work with their hands or have a career that offers advancement and pays well.

Steve Rogers, who oversees the day-to-day operations at Valmont Industries’ welding and fabrication shop, said a mobile lab could benefit the company.

“When we are very busy, it is very difficult to fill the demand for welders. We’ve started our own training facility,” but the addition of a mobile lab would allow entry level workers to “learn a trade faster,” Rogers said.

“We’re really interested in this,” said Steve Deane, who oversees corporate quality at Lozier Corp. in Omaha. Lozier manufactures store fixtures. “We struggle with getting trained people.”

The lab would give employees the basics quickly, Deane said, and from there the company could fine-tune their skills to meet company-specific needs.

Mark Pope, human resources director at Hawkins Construction Co. in Omaha, said the firm likes to employ versatile construction workers — “the more versatile the better.” Ironworkers, bridge carpenters and mechanics need to be able to weld, and the mobile lab would provide a quick way to train them, he said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1142, janice.podsada@owh.com

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