By Julie Chang - American-Statesman Staff
If he could, Robb Misso said he would hire 15 more welders immediately. Other companies want even more, said Misso, president of Dynamic Manufacturing Solutions in Northeast Austin.
The problem is there aren’t enough welders to meet the demand across Central Texas, even though Austin Community College, one of the main institutions in the area that trains them, had one of the largest enrollments in the program’s history in the spring — about 450 students. The college constantly puts students on waiting lists for classes in the welding program, which takes 1 1/2 to two years to complete.
According to Texas Workforce Solutions, Central Texas welding jobs will increase 20 percent over the next five years. The median salary was about $34,000 in 2013, but it’s possible for some welders to make upward of $150,000 if they work overtime and on multiple projects.
Areas like the Gulf Coast and West Texas have opportunities for large-scale welding on pipelines and on ships, but in Central Texas, the jobs can be smaller, like welding on tiny tubes in very clean environments for semiconductor projects.
“There’s more demand than there are opportunities at institutions locally,” said Misso, who is also a board member of the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association. “Especially during the boom in the oil and gas market two years ago, we really had a hard time finding people. It’s lightened up a little bit, but it’s still a very competitive market.”
A retiring baby boomer welder population, a push decades ago for young students to shift away from blue-collar jobs and the growth of manufacturing, technology and energy companies in Central Texas have also driven the relative dearth in trained welders, said Troy DeFrates, chair of the welding department at ACC.
That has translated into high-paying salaries for a handful of resourceful young welders.
During his State of the State speech, Gov. Greg Abbott mentioned that 24-year-old Houston welder Justin Friend, a graduate of Texas State Technical College, which is also a training hub for Central Texas welders, was making $130,000 per year. Abbott joked that if the “governor thing doesn’t work out,” he was going to go to enroll.
Austin welder Hal Ferguson, 30, also easily makes a six-figure salary. His company, APC Metal Works, which occupies a coveted spot near East Fifth and Onion streets near downtown, has grown from a home garage operation to having works featured on front pages of home magazines, said Ferguson. Among his most notable work is the namesake structure at the Lighthouse Hill Ranch in Johnson City.
“You have to put your time in and put your hood down and just weld,” Ferguson said.
High schools are poised to help community and technical colleges meet the need. Last school year was the first time all high school freshmen in Texas had to choose a specialized graduation plan called an endorsement. Students have the option to choose a career path — akin to a college major — in one of five endorsement areas: arts and humanities; business and industry; public services; multidisciplinary studies; and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
As a result, the Austin school district has seen an increase in many of its career and technical education courses, including welding.
The hope is that with the specialized graduation plans, all students can find a high-paying job whether they go to college or not.
On average, welding isn’t the highest paying job — certain medical and computer technicians can earn twice as much as a welder — but aspiring welders are lured by the hands-on nature of the gig with very little cost and demands of training.
“I have always loved working with my hands and making things,” said 21-year-old Austin welder Veronica Lemus, who works for Misso. “We, as welders, are creative. For us, we make the metal work for us and do what we need it to.”