Mark Mansell grew up around the oil fields of Oklahoma and developed a great appreciation for the blue-collar creativity of welders.
Mansell, 50, earned his certification as a welder 35 years ago, and while his friends were off pursuing college degrees and fancy job titles, he was working.
“I was always making more money than all my friends,” Mansell said.
Now, in addition to being a welder and business owner of MDM Contracting in Hindsville (Madison County), Mansell is helping to prepare the next generation of welders for the northwest Arkansas job market as the welding instructor at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale. Mansell and other area officials don’t think he will be out of a job soon.
“Welding is absolutely in high demand,” Mansell said. “I get weekly calls from people looking to hire welders. There aren’t enough students that I have to fulfill the jobs that are available. If you graduate this program, you’re pretty much guaranteed a job.”
NTI’s welding program is a 10-month certification course that graduates about 12 students each term. The institute is looking to expand its program thanks to a $2.6 million gift it received. It’s an expansion that will see the program move into a new building with an additional instructor to enable the institute to double its welding enrollment.
Welding isn’t glamorous. A recent tour of the institute’s welding workshop revealed a lot of sparks and grease and soiled hands and clothes.
“It does take a lot of hand-eye coordination and some people don’t have the knack,” Mansell said. “I think, overall, a majority of people with practice and dedication can get the skills. If you love working with tools, working with your hands and building things, it’s the perfect job.”
Mansell said welding is a key component of many important and thriving industries in the nation’s — and Arkansas’ — economy.
Long-term, viable industries such as commercial construction, automotive and aviation use welders extensively.
“Anything to do with metal and constructing has some type of welding in it,” Mansell said. “After one year you’re trained and out on the job making money. It takes a lot of training and experience to be really good at it.”
Supply & Demand
Talk about northwest Arkansas’ robust economy usually centers on the area’s major economic players, companies such as Walmart Inc. of Bentonville, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale and J.B. Hunt Transport Services of Lowell.
Those major companies and the deep network of vendors and ancillary businesses have made northwest Arkansas an economic engine.
But even an environment rich in business executives creates tenfold more blue-collar and trade skill jobs.
Studies show that only 20 percent of the jobs created or open in northwest Arkansas require four years of college, said Joe Rollins, who was named director of workforce development for the Northwest Arkansas Council in October.
The nonprofit council brings together area business, education and government leaders to help develop initiatives and programs to keep pace with the area’s growth.
Rollins meets regularly with institutions such as NTI and Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville to help coordinate the area’s business needs with the area’s educational offerings.
“Our role in this conversation is to provide as much data and as many connections as we can,” Rollins said. “For our educators, I wouldn’t say this is new information, but it is presented in a way that a lot more folks are latching onto it. It is pushing kids into these continued training programs.
“We now are joining closely. We are seeing much stronger involvement between our high schools and our technical schools and our two-year colleges to bridge that gap.”
Rollins said northwest Arkansas is doing more than ever to help high school students learn skills they can use upon graduation.
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NTI offers 10 occupation pathways for its 650 or so students, who are divided more or less equally between secondary students and postsecondary students.
Blake Robertson, NTI’s president, said the institute recently expanded its ammonia refrigeration maintenance program and also has popular programs for nursing and trucking. When the institute researched what to do with its $2.6 million bequest, the welding program emerged as the ideal recipient.
The institute recently expanded its automotive program and is hoping local businesses can help it expand its diesel mechanics program. If welding moves into a new building, its current building can be used for even more automotive training.
“Of all the programs we had, welding was in great demand in northwest Arkansas, and it was just the perfect program to build that building for,” Robertson said. “This is an opportunity to build a new building and double our welding program. We need to expand everything we’ve got. It’s not a question of what I don’t want. I want every one of them [expanded].”
The benefits of strong technical and trade learning to the local economy are pretty self-evident: Businesses fill labor needs with a steady stream of local candidates.
For the candidates themselves, going to trade school also makes sense. Mansell said he had several students graduate two years ago and then immediately start as entry-level welders at $14 an hour.
That translates to an annual salary of $29,000, but most welders work extra hours for extra pay. Those students, after two years of experience, are now making $20 an hour, Mansell said.
“They’re bringing in a boatload of money,” Mansell said. “It takes about a year to get the on-the-job-experience under your belt. Once you do, your pay goes up.”
Robertson said a 10-month course at NTI costs about $4,500, so graduating students don’t have a debt anchor to burden them in the working world. Rollins said that in presentations he delivers to high school audiences, he balances the choice between a four-year degree or a trade skill certification.
“I tell kids I am 100 percent for college as long as you have a plan,” Rollins said. “If you’re going [to college] without one, you’re meandering through the system. That doesn’t do you any favors. That just prolongs the process.”
Rollins said providing information about jobs in industries like welding or construction or nursing can remove one of the “pitfalls” for graduating high school seniors who don’t know what they want to do or are uncertain about whether they are ready for a four-year college.