In early October 2017, the pops and flashes of welding projects filled one of Puma Steel’s echoey production bays. While welding projects are commonplace at Puma Steel, a steel fabricator and supplier in Cheyenne, these weren’t Puma's regular welders, nor its regular projects.
Instead, those sparks were the first flickers of a movement that would ignite excitement and momentum in Wyoming’s steel industry.
The welders behind the dark-tinted helmets were high school students from around the region, there to compete for scholarships in the first of what would become an annual welding competition. It turned out to be a creative solution to reinforce the shaky foundation of an industry facing severe workforce shortages.
“It started as a rather simple idea,” Puma Steel co-owner Rex Lewis said. “We wanted to give back to the community and support students who were considering making a career out of welding. So, we developed a welding contest and awarded scholarships to the welding program at LCCC (Laramie County Community College).”
Organizers worked around a few hiccups in the first year, but ultimately filled Puma’s production bay with several contestants from three states and awarded a total of $10,000 in American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) David B. Ratterman scholarships.
Building on excitement from the first event, organizers worked out the kinks and aligned the contest with National Steel Day events the following year. Participation in 2018 ballooned to 53 students in the preliminary competition, which was held over two late-September days at LCCC. Thirteen went on to the finals held at Puma Steel on the third day, winning a total of $13,000 in scholarships, as well as about $7,000 worth of equipment and materials.
Former Gov. Matt Mead attended the finals and presented the scholarships, touting the importance of skills training for Wyoming’s future workforce.
While the contest and scholarship program itself has met Lewis’ initial intent of supporting local welding students, it has grown to become much more than he imagined. It has begun to answer workforce shortage concerns for his company and the steel industry as a whole; it has helped reveal a viable career-path option for students; it has inspired another program for welding instructors to hone their skills and inspire their students; and it has fine-tuned a model that is replicable for nearly any industry facing workforce shortages.
“There’s really no downside to this thing,” said Barry Bruns, a Puma Steel board member and chairman of the LCCC welding program’s advisory board.
Community College addressing the workforce shortage
It’s no secret Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, leaving nearly every industry scrambling to address workforce pipelines.
“Guys like me, Baby Boomers, are retiring,” Sam Graham, the lead instructor for LCCC’s welding program, said. “That’s a challenge for the industry, but an opportunity for young people today.”
LCCC’s welding program began in 2013 with about 12 students and has increased to about 50 students with three instructors in the past few years.
Jill Koslosky, dean of the School of Business, Agriculture and Technical Studies at LCCC, said the scholarship program with Puma has brought awareness to LCCC’s welding program and broadened the college’s reach to prospective students.
“We are excited about the growth and the direction this program is headed and how we are able to serve this industry,” she said. “The trades are outstanding opportunities for all students and a great way to make a good living without a huge student-loan debt.”
The welding program has grown so much and continues to see enough interest that LCCC is now working toward offering a night program for welding, she said.
This model for bolstering a workforce is repeatable by just about any industry, she added. The key is the partnership with Puma Steel and other contributors to the scholarship program and event.
Although LCCC can’t attribute all its welding program’s growth to the welding scholarship contest, “it definitely helps,” Graham said.
“Since the first two days of the contest are held at LCCC, the contestants get to see our shop and see how nice the machines we have are,” he said. “Often, students who compete but don’t win are still inspired to enroll in our program.”
Revealing a viable career path
Zach Bobenmoyer is one such student.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in high school,” Bobenmoyer said.
He entered the Cheyenne East High School welding program and was inspired by his teacher, Matt Nolan, who is the head of school's welding program, to compete in the welding contest.
Bobenmoyer didn’t advance to the finals in the contest, but he did enroll in LCCC’s welding program when he graduated. He is currently earning an associate degree in welding.
Nolan said he will always strive to take his students to the welding competition. Just a handful of students were interested in competing the first year, and now he has 20 to 30 students attend each year.
“Every student should know what their options are and should have an opportunity to make it easier to reach their goals. Taking them to this competition satisfies both,” he said. “They get to weld and experience everything LCCC has to offer, and they get the opportunity to make it more feasible for them to attend college.”
In 2018, as a freshman at LCCC, Bobenmoyer went back to watch the welding contest when it was held at Puma to support the kids in the finals, he said.
“That’s when I decided to see if I could get a job at Puma,” he said.
Now, while attending school, he is interning as a fitter at Puma, laying out the steel pieces for the welders.
“After I get my associates, I plan to transfer to UW and get either an architectural or mechanical engineering degree,” he said.
Graham, the LCCC welding instructor, said the welding contest helps students get started toward a viable career. Some go on to earn higher degrees in fields like engineering, but there are many options within the welding career, he said. Some work with a local shop that offers stable pay and benefits, and some travel for construction or union work.
“Some of my students are out chasing pipelines around and making well over $100,000 a year,” he said.
Bruns, the Puma Steel board member and chairman of the LCCC welding program’s advisory board, said the scholarship contest organizers discovered another hurdle to building up a local workforce of welders: often, high-school agriculture teachers are tasked with teaching welding, but aren’t welders themselves.
So, LCCC created the Weld Works program – a free two-day teach-the-teachers program for welding instructors in the region.
“I would highly recommend the Weld Works program,” Nolan, the head of East High’s welding program, said. “I attended this summer. It was a great opportunity to brush up on some skills and learn new industry standards that are being implemented. There were some teachers that had very little experience welding, and others that were full-time welding instructors. Regardless of skill or knowledge, the LCCC instructors worked individually with the teachers to make them better welders.”
The scholarship competition, the partnership between LCCC and Puma, and the Weld Works program each work like stabilizing bolts in the foundation of an industry in need of reinforcing.
“There is such a decline in the skilled trades that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find properly trained individuals in all areas of industry,” Nolan said. “Students have been indoctrinated that these types of jobs are not viable, long-term career solutions. That could not be more untrue. The fact that we have a community college here in Cheyenne that recognizes this problem and is actively trying to come up with solutions, with this Puma Steel scholarship as an example, is very refreshing.”