November 2009- There are certain things that have long been synonymous with Alaska: King crabs, the Iditarod, Kodiak bears, and massive pipelines.
For a state known for its abundant oil and natural gas, there's a special need for skilled pipe welders to keep up with the energy demands of not only Alaska but also the rest of the 49 states.
Recognizing this need, the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, Seward, Alaska, offers a comprehensive pipe welding program to train workers for challenging and rewarding careers in the state's energy sector.
"We originally taught welding with the emphasis on flat plate and some actual small projects," says Kent Berklund, welding department head at AVTEC. "Our program evolved as the need for certified welders grew and incorporated all-position welding with an emphasis on being able to pass an AWS D1.1 3/8-inch plate, closed-root, all-position test. Students now spend 6.5 hours a day, five days per week, for 20 weeks, totally immersed in the trades."
AVTEC opts not to certify its students in-house. Once the students are able to produce repetitive, clean, bend-tested welds, they are sent to an independent welding test lab for an X-ray welding certification test. There, they do the testing and receive certification, which, Berklund explains, provides a more accurate representation of both the students' skills and the program's effectiveness.
To keep an emphasis on hands-on skills, students spend 90 percent of their time in the welding lab and 10 percent in the classroom, and they're required to accumulate 450 contact hours before graduation.
Given the exceptional skill and nuance needed to weld pipe, these robust requirements are a natural reflection of Alaska's growing need for talented pipe welders.
Berklund says that in the program's earlier days, "there was a small need for pipe welders and we would bring back the best two or three for 13 weeks of pipe welding. These students were mixed in with the structural welders, and one instructor worked with the whole group. In 2001, it was identified that there was going to be a serious shortage of certified pipe welders in Alaska. The talk of a new gas pipeline was going strong, and Alaska was working hard to develop our workforce to be ready for it. The decision to develop a longer, more complete pipe welding class was made, and by 2004, we were constructing a dedicated facility, and curriculum development began."
As with the Alaska Vocational Technical Center's other welding programs, the pipe welding program emphasizes responsibility and safety. All students are required to have current first aid and CPR training.
"The students first, foremost and continuously are taught safety," says Berklund. "We introduce them to the oxy-fuel processes as it applies to pipe welding, then SMAW, GTA and FCA welding processes. We set the emphasis on SMAW in 2G through 6G positions. The students spend time with rigging, blueprint reading, pipe fitting and metal preparation."
Along with these skills, students learn math and how to use computerized pipe cutting equipment.
"We also have a dedicated math program for our welding department the students have to complete," he continues. "We employ a computer pipe cutter with the students in the fabrication of complicated pipe intersections. The initial pipe work is mainly with 8-inch Schedule 40 pipe, though throughout the class ,students work with various pipe sizes: 2 inches through 24 inches and multiple pipe schedules. Toward the end, we also have the students team up and weld out 12-inch through 24-inch pipe.
"This is a real eye-opener, as it takes two to three hours of continuous welding to complete the weld out on one joint," he adds.
Ultimately, AVTEC's pipe welding program aspires to give students not just pipe welding skills but the intangible skills and work ethic that will make them successful in any job arena.
"The skill sets we teach are applicable anywhere in the world," says Berklund. "A pipe-welding career can provide travel, excellent pay, job security and always a chance to learn something new." MM