EAST CHICAGO | Parnell Jordan said when he was learning to weld 30 years ago, an instructor had to stand behind him barking instructions about his speed and how close the welding rod was to the steel coupon.
As a professor now, Jordan said that experience remains crucial for student to learn the craft. But he's also proud Ivy Tech Community College launched a new program that allows students to use virtual reality welding machines, helping them to practice their craft without consuming materials for live welding.
Three students are studying at the East Chicago campus that's designed to be a fast-track to launching a welding career. In October, the Ivy Institute of Technology launched a 40-week program at select campuses around the state to provide industry certifications that employers covet in potential workers.
"Out of 21 years of teaching here, this is one of the best pieces of equipment in reference to learning that you can find right now," said Jordan, assistant professor and head of the new welding program.
Aco Sikoski, vice chancellor and dean at Ivy Tech Community College's Valparaiso campus, said the college system received a $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to obtain equipment for welding, automotive, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and machining programs.
Jordan said the East Chicago campus has two Lincoln Electric Co. virtual reality welding machines now, and is using proceeds from a grant to buy and install additional welding machines and booths.
With the technology, students and instructors can see colored cues to determine whether students have the correct hand position, balance, speed and other techniques for proper welds. By using the correct technique on the machines, Jordan said the students are able to gain "muscle memory" for the craft. The software generates scores from each practice session and can be used to grade students on their performance.
The technology also has another practical purpose – saving the school money. Shakir Meux, a welding instructor who has worked four years for several companies in the field, said the machines are able to record how much material would have been consumed if the welding process were actually taking place. In one month, Meux said one machine has saved more than a half-ton of 3/8-inch-thick steel plate in about a month, which is now worth about $380.
Meux said if had the chance to train using the machines, he could have had entered the workforce faster.
Classes are taught in four, 10-week segments. Students spend about six hours a day, five days a week in class.
Gary resident and student David Smith, 24, said he has family members who are welders and had interest in the program after speaking with Jordan about career opportunities. And after dealing with the simulators, Smith said "I was sold."
Student John Kowalski, of Hammond, said he has a few reasons why he wants to be a welder in addition to it being a occupation that's expected to grow.
"I like welding and I want to make money," said Kowalski, 21.
Jordan said neither student had previous welding experience. About a year from now, Jordan hopes to have regular rotations of 16 students in each class.
In May 2011, the average annual wage of welders, cutters, solderers and brazers was nearly $38,000 in Lake, Porter, Jasper and Newton counties. Meux said the pay range will rise depending on the type of welding a person does and if a person is working on projects that pay prevailing wage.
The college and the American Welding Society worked together to develop the new welding program. Ivy Tech also has a welding career track within its industrial technology program that could help students net an associate degree in applied science.