AUBURN — On a Thursday afternoon, four Franklin Alternative School students sat in a Washington Street classroom listening to Warren Swan of the New England School of Sheet Metal.
The class talked about proper welding "puddles" — globs of steel melted by the welding gun.
They discussed welding processes, “MIG” (metal inert gas) and “GMAW" (gas metal arc welding).
They used vocabulary out of a chemistry class, such as inert gas (gas that doesn't react), and talked about how hot temperatures get when welding (6,000 to 30,000 degrees; steel melts at 2,800 degrees.)
After 15 minutes, the group went into a tractor-trailer lab. They put on big, black masks and shields, fire-proof aprons and gloves.
“Go ahead. Light it up,” Swan said.
Student turned on their “guns.” Bright light flared in the dark cubical as they dragged their guns across metal.
Welding is a new vocational program created by Franklin Principal Russ Barlow for his alternative high school students.
The Lewiston Regional Technical Center at Lewiston High School “should be right up our alley,” Barlow said, but last year only two Franklin students were enrolled at LRTC.
Barlow has since promoted LRTC to his students, and this past fall 12 were enrolled there. Two did not make it, but Barlow said the remaining 10 "are working toward entering our workforce.”
Even in a tough economy, some jobs are being filled. Welders and nurses are needed, he said. "You have to have the skills.”
According to Swan, the average age of welders in the United States is 57. That means welders are needed to replace those who are retiring, he said.
But there's not enough space at LRTC classrooms for beginner welding students, Barlow said. However, there is room for second-year students, which is why he created the beginners' class.
He hunted down grant money and created a program through the New England School of Sheet Metal. The class of five began in November. Students meet with Swan on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He is helping them prepare to take a second year of welding at LRTC next year, Barlow said.
“This is kind of a crash course,” Swan said, adding that the class runs for a total of 72 hours and includes 60 hours of welding. “The kids are doing great," he said. "They don't take a break; they keep going. I love working with kids like that.”
The students ask intelligent questions and follow what he's saying, Swan said. “We go over this every day before we weld. I'm amazed by some of the questions these kids are asking.”
Kyanna Edwards, 18, said she signed up “because it's really a good trade to have. A lot of people need welding.”
Andrew Townsend, 17, said welding might look scary to an untrained observer, “but as long as you do what Mr. Warren tells you to, nothing will go wrong.”
Townsend said he might do automotive work or join the service "and weld for them.”
Jessie Jennings, 17, said he's always wanted to learn the trade.
“My brother's a mechanic," he said "We need someone to weld.” The class is providing hands-on learning, he said. “You can't learn to weld with a textbook.”
He too plans to weld as a career, maybe doing auto-body work in his brother's shop. Knowing the skill brings job security, Jennings said. “No matter where you are, they're always going to need welders.”
More trade instruction is on the way. Barlow said he's developing other new job programs.