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PHCC going high-tech with welding program
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Jackson Harkey, a PHCC welding student, works on a project at the community college.
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Friday, August 29, 2014

With welding practitioners in high demand and a need to step in as the workforce ages, instructors at Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) are looking to increase technology in the classroom and explore more options for students.

They are doing that with the addition of virtual welding and robotic welding to the welding shop at PHCC. Randy Smith, a welding instructor at PHCC, said virtual welding will allow students to have an additional tool in the classroom to make them successful.

“Students wear a helmet, all their gear, but the welding is all done virtually through a computer simulation,” he said. “It allows students to hear the sounds, it looks as if they’re welding, but you don’t get burned.”

Instructor Dwight Bower said virtual welding will help students practice their skills.

“We can take a student that may be struggling and using quite a bit of metal, put them on the virtual welder and iron out any problems they have without using materials and resources,” he said. “It’s definitely not a standalone tool, but it’s a very useful resource to get students where they need to be.”

Smith added, “It will expose their problem areas. It will tell them if they’re going at improper speeds or if they have improper arc lengths.”

Access to robotic welding will allow students to gain experience in programming to automate the welding process.

Bower said it will take PHCC’s welding program to the next level by incorporating current technology.

Rhonda Hodges, PHCC’s vice president of workforce, economic and community development, said virtual welding and robotic welding incorporate technology into an already successful program.

“We’re working to incorporate an overall trend that more employers are utilizing within the welding industry,” she said. “The new equipment will be housed in Philpott and we are pursuing an aggressive timeline to start this new programming.”

In the past academic year, 48 PHCC welding students took and passed 96 national welding certification tests. Bower said around 60 percent of these students are now employed with most starting salaries around $17.25 an hour plus benefits.

“We’re sending them south of here to Deere Hitachi in Kernersville (N.C.) where they hire top students making $20 per hour with great benefits,” he said. “When they (students) leave here, they still call me because I know where the business is — who they’re hiring. Our former students are all over the place — Siemens in Winston-Salem, (N.C.), Miller Brewery in Eden (N.C.) or FreightCar America in Roanoke. They’re hiring students as fast as we can get them out of here.”

There also are a few local companies that hire PHCC students. Bower said.

“Almost every place locally that has welding have our students there,” he said.

One thing that makes PHCC welding students stand out from other applicants is their understanding of multiple processes in welding, Bower said.

Bower said students work with different types of electrodes, learn to read blueprints, can weld in every position and learn to weld with all types of metals, from sheet metal to one-inch plates.

“If we have a student who comes to us and they’re already working for a company that needs them to learn a particular process, we work with that student for what they need,” he said. “Our typical students learn a broad spectrum of processes so they can go to any place and work.”

PHCC has a reputation across the region for producing well-qualified students who are successful in the field, Bower said. The college offers them seven welding certifications.

“Establishing PHCC’s reputation and building a welding school isn’t something you can throw together overnight,” he said. “To be where we are now has taken us many, many years of sacrifices, dollars and our students going out there and doing a good job for their employers.”

When he started with PHCC more than 30 years ago, Bower said welding program officials weren’t sure if the welding program would get off the ground. During that time, he estimates that around 80 percent of his classes have been full and about half the time, they have had to turn students away.

Smith has helped Bower with night classes for around 15 years. He said over the past decade, all students taking the certifications have passed.

“It’s just a solid program,” Smith said. “They’re going to work hard the way we do it, and then they’re going to take those tests. And they’ll pass.”

Angeline Godwin, PHCC president, said these new welding technologies provide another dimension as part of the already “stellar program” and another “feather in the cap” of students pursuing this high-demand career.

“Welding has been and continues to be an extraordinarily strong program at PHCC that is recognized throughout the commonwealth for the quality of its faculty and the students they educate,” she said. “Our goal is to build on this remarkable program by enhancing the competitive advantages of our students in the workplace.”

A report prepared for the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) by the Boston Consulting Group resulted in the Centers of Excellence grants program, which will help fund costs for PHCC’s welding upgrades.

A Centers of Excellence proposal, with PHCC, Danville Community College, New College Institute and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, outlines PHCC as the lead provider in welding training.

The proposal includes virtual welders and robotic welding equipment totaling $230,000, faculty training costing $20,000 and a renovation of the welding lab at PHCC costing $100,000.

Godwin said the grant has been awarded but funds are yet to be dispersed. She anticipates funding this fall.


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