MARIETTA - Pioneer Group owner and Chairman Dave Archer has been saying for years the area needs more welders and pipefitters.
Now that his prediction is coming true with the rising oil and natural gas industry, his company is taking matters into its own hands to develop that expanded workforce.
Pioneer Group this month began a pre-apprenticeship program in partnership with the Washington County Career Center, in which half a dozen students are spending part of their day in the welding lab at Pioneer's Westview Avenue facility. The 16-week Senior Welding Apprenticeship Program benefits all parties involved by teaching the students needed skills in a workplace setting and helping Pioneer add quality employees for the long haul, said Pioneer chief operating officer Matt Hilverding.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Washington County Career Center senior Janelle Pugh, front, prepares to start welding as career center secondary director Mike Elliott watches in the lab at Pioneer Group’s facility on Westview Avenue in Marietta.
"There's probably enough of this work for enough years they could make their whole career right here at home," he said. "That's our whole goal here is to develop employees that will become lifelong employees of our company."
And the students won't have to wait very long to get on the payroll. Once they can obtain certification in five different welding procedures, they can apply for union membership and become apprentices.
"Once these kids can learn to do this, there's their job, right over there," Archer said, pointing out the window of the welding lab to where Pioneer employees were at work.
Archer said the starting hourly rate for an apprentice, including benefits, is $30.
The welding lab and classroom were originally added to help Pioneer workers hone their own skills, but as demand for Pioneer's fabrication of pipelines for the oil and gas industry grew due to interest in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations, they found they had more work than people to do it.
"We could use 80-plus people tonight, put 'em to work," Archer said, later revising that number to 100.
The company has been doing work for the oil and gas industry for years, sending a lot of its products to New York, western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia as shale exploration developed there, Hilverding said. Now, more and more is staying in Ohio, as the process accelerates in the state.
But Pioneer could be doing even more. Archer said the company has turned down about $20 million worth of work in the last two months.
"We can't get plumbers and pipefitters," he said. "So we've developed our own training program here."
The arrangement currently costs the career center nothing. Archer said footing the bill for this program is preferable to missing out on so much potential business.
The career center's welding program has long been a popular one, and students have gotten early placement in apprenticeships, career center secondary director Mike Elliott said. But even so, the demand for workers was outpacing the supply.
Elliott called the arrangement with Pioneer a "tremendous opportunity" for youth. In addition to providing quality training and an inside track to a job, it also requires them to finish high school.
"Pioneer Group and obviously us, we still want them to earn their high school diplomas," Elliott said.
The six seniors take academic classes in the morning at the career center, then spend the afternoon at Pioneer, where they receive one-on-one instruction from journeyman pipefitter Justin Betts. And the decrease in class size back at the career center means the instructor there has more time to work with students, Elliott said.
"And hopefully when this group's finished, we'll have another six ready to go," he said.
Career center Senior Tyler Stacy, from Warren High School, called the program a "once-in-a-lifetime chance."
"It's not ever day you get the opportunity to go straight from lunch at school to pretty much work," he said.
Fellow senior Janelle Pugh, from Waterford High School, said the program is "awesome." The only girl in the initial group of six, she said she challenges herself to do as well or better than her male counterparts to prove wrong anyone who might think her participation is an effort to fill some sort of gender-based quota.
"I really want to do well up here," Pugh said. "Because if I can at least prove it to myself, that I can keep up with the boys here, I won't care what people say."
Archer said she's having no problem doing that.
"She's in here because she's a welder. We don't care if she's a female or not," he said.
In fact, women have some advantages as welders, Archer said.
"They're more patient, and their manual dexterity's real good," he said.
Pugh's not the only member of the class impressing Archer.
"This is as good a group as a group that I've ever seen put together," he said. "These kids are awesome."
Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Charlotte Keim said she liked what she saw when she toured the operation.
"What the Pioneer Group has done is a huge step forward in providing opportunities for area youth and ensuring that when there is work available ... there are workers to handle the jobs," she said. "I'd like to see more of this happening."