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Local welders on board with ship's repairs

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They have to twist and contort in tight, small, claustrophobic places in floating vessels high above the Willamette River. Make no bones about it: it’s rough and tough work. And Vigor Industrial apprentice welders Josh Mortensen and Erin Martin absolutely love it.

“When I’m out there welding all day and it gets to quitting time, you have to make me put the torch down,” Mortensen said. “It’s fun and you get paid.”

Martin agrees.

“It’s satisfying to me to see the results,” she added. “I enjoy not knowing what I’m going to do every day. It’s something different each time I come to work.”

Since May, both graduates of the Swan Island Training Center, a partnership between PCC and Vigor Industrial, have been working on a government ship, a stint that will take eight months and run 8-hour days. These two are the first PCC students hired for the ship repair yard since the training center started a year ago. In 2008-09, 59 students took classes at the center, which placed it at near capacity.

The lab environment at the shop gives the welders a good insight to what will be expected of them on their jobs, a mere 100 yards from the front door of the training center. But because the jobs are so close and it’s hard to mimic the environment, much of the best training comes while on the job as an apprentice.

“Out here, you end up in positions where you can’t stand the way you want, can’t look at it the way you want and can’t even use the arm you want to weld,” said Mortensen, who is a resident of Portland. “You have to learn to do all this positioning that we weren’t prepared for.”

The work can be a grind, literally. Ship welders typically perform grinding to prepare them to weld on, finish welding, move equipment and bulk heads, fit them in place, cut holes – essential prep work for the electricians and plumbers to come in and work on later.

“They got us doing a little bit of everything,” added Martin, who is from Gladstone.

The job may sound hard, but both say that it’s exactly what they’ve always wanted to do. Mortensen had been performing backbreaking work in construction without retirement or health benefits. After slogging too long in the mud or under the heat of the sun, he began questioning the sanity of his career and enrolled at the welding program at the Rock Creek Campus. But with a huge waiting list of almost 100 students, Mortensen found there was space at the recently opened Swan Island Training Center in North Portland’s shipyard.

“That’s how you are going to get a job is to get down there in the field, meet some people and see what’s going on,” he said. “I was doing a lot of labor work and that doesn’t last forever. I started doing some research on welding and found that there’s a big demand for welders, salaries are going up and the outlook for the demand was just going to rise.”

Martin started her training last fall and, like Mortensen, recently graduated from the program. At her shipping and receiving warehouse job she was previously at, she watched coworkers weld parts and she became intrigued. She was encouraged by her friends to follow welding as her next career path.

“It sounded cool,” she said. “It was always guys doing it, but I wanted to do what they were doing. I wanted a better skill trade to support my son and I. If I didn’t know this stuff from the training center I would not have made it out here.”

In May 2008, Vigor Industrial and PCC joined forces to open the Swan Island Training Center to help meet demand for workers. Skilled welders are a key labor component for manufacturing companies and, locally, there is a shortage of well-trained workers in this vital trade. Companies on the east side of the Willamette, such as U.S. Barge, Vigor, Service Steel and Columbia Wire & Iron, have the potential to expand their workforce by taking advantage of the training opportunities that the Swan Island Training Center provides.

“This is such a great opportunity for us,” said Amy Hill, communications manager for Vigor Industrial. “If students stand out like Josh and Erin do and you really have the motivation, the passion and the skill, it’s a great way to show to us that you have the potential to be a great employee. If you stand out like that we are going to snatch you up because we need skilled people down here.”

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »