By Texan Mosaic Staff
With sparks flying, the welding technology program at South Plains College might have already outgrown its Levelland space…again.
In October 2022, construction began on the Levelland welding building to increase usable space. At that time, Jimmy Stratton, chairperson for industrial technology and associate professor for welding technology, said the program had full waitlists for every class, every semester. He says the Levelland site originally had 59 welding booths for students to use.
Now, the latest expansion is complete, and 9,000 square feet of space was added to the facility, including 21 welding booths, which can accommodate 80 students per section on the Levelland campus. Two full- time faculty positions were also added.
This semester’s batch of welding students are the first ones to officially use the new, expanded space.
“Between our morning classes and our afternoon classes,” Stratton says, “we can accommodate 112 students per semester now.”
Despite the new digs, it’s already clear the latest expansion may not be enough to meet demand. The official ribbon cutting on the expansion took place on July 28.
“I had gotten confirmation about three days before the ribbon cutting that we were completely full,” Stratton says.
Since then, right before the first day of class this fall semester, Stratton says they had waiting lists for all three SPC campuses where welding classes are offered, including Levelland, the Lubbock Career and Technology Center, and Plainview.
“Not counting dual credit high school students,” Stratton says, “we are close to 140 full-time students this semester with all three campuses combined.”
Welding student Harley Beseda says she is “pretty lucky” to be enrolled in welding on the Levelland campus. Now in her second semester, she says she was on a waiting list last semester up until three days before classes started. Last semester, Beseda says she registered for this semester to make sure she secured her spot.
The newly finished expansion on the Levelland campus includes space to move large tanks inside that Stratton says students built some 10 years ago.
There’s also a CNC table, which Stratton says is a computer and numerically controlled cutting table. This machine, Stratton explains, turns a piece of sheet metal into a useful product.
“We’ll sit down at a computer,” he says. “We’ll actually draw up a program in two dimensions. We’ll bring that program out, load it into the machine. It will cut whatever figure, shape we’ve loaded into it.”
There are many students who are eager to start the program and pursue a career in welding. Stratton explains that like all technical programs at SPC, he says, these are high demand jobs.
“And skilled labor,” he says, “they’re being paid a premium, especially now, especially with welding. It’s a shortage in the available workforce.”
According to weldingworkforcedata.com, a site that says it publishes welding data and projections that are endorsed by the American Welding Society, 360,000 new welding professionals are projected to be needed by 2027. The same site reports the national median salary for welding jobs is $49,500 per year. Median salary means half of those in the occupation earned more than the figure and half earned less.
Welding requires a lot of focus, which Beseda says allows her to tune out the world around her.
“The main reason I enjoy welding,” she says, “is whenever that hood goes down your brain just shuts off. And you just have to focus on what you’re doing right in front of you. And that’s hard to find nowadays Your brain’s constantly running.”
Stratton says part of the reason welders are in high demand is because the current welding workforce is starting to age out.
“They’re reaching their age of retirement” he says, “and there just has been a lot people coming in to replace those individuals.”
National statistics appear to back that up. According to weldingworkforcedatat.com, a snapshot of the current welding workforce includes an estimated 770,000 U.S. welding professionals as of 2023. The site reports more than 155,000 welders are approaching retirement.
Beseda believes that the program at SPC can help her to pursue her own dreams in a welding career.
“For a while,” she says, “I’d like to maybe chase down some shutdowns, and do that type of work, inconsistent work. And then maybe one day, settle down and open up my own fabrication shop.”
Shutdowns, she explains, are jobs that last anywhere from six months to two years. When plants shut down, she says, welders go in and repair them. But it’s not always clear how long those jobs will last.
“But I’d like to do that while I’m young,” she says,” and not set in one spot with a family yet.”
Stratton says the number of women in the welding program this semester is “amazing.” Traditionally, he says the program has had two, or sometimes three, female students a semester. And that’s combined between all three locations.
“This semester,” Stratton says, “we started out with a total of 15 female students in the welding program. Eleven of those 15 are right here at the Levelland campus.”
While the number of female students has increased in the welding program, female students are still outnumbered by men. Beseda said that this was “intimidating sometimes,” especially during her first semester, but mostly because she was new to the program.
“So, starting a new job or class, it’s a little intimidating. But once you go in and get to know everyone, most everyone is pretty respectful of me for the most part,” Beseda said. “It becomes a family, so it’s no different than any other job to me.”
Further expansion of the welding facility has already been discussed; however, the program is currently limited in available space.
“But our next step,” he says, “if we still continue to generate waiting lists large enough that we’d be able to support another fulltime faculty position, we’ll start opening up additional sections for students in our afternoon classes.”
Harley Beseda is good to graduate with all her certificates in December of next year. She gives credit to her instructors and the program at SPC for making her confident that she has a bright future after SPC.
“Every faculty member and instructor, they’re all really great to us,” she says. “And they’re shaping us into really great welders. And not only great welders, they are shaping us into amazing people too.”