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Flashy competition at Mitchell Technical College as welders show off skills

Students with passion for creation help showcase school program, industry partnerships

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Students from around the state Friday converged on the campus of Mitchell Technical College for its annual welding competition. Dozens of high school junior and seniors were on hand for the event, which also included a tour of the college campus and interaction time with industry partners.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — For the students at the Nordby Trades Center on the campus of Mitchell Technical College , the most pressing task at hand Friday morning was fusing two pieces of metal together. Shielding their eyes from the brilliant flash of a welding torch, they each do their part to create strong, quality welds as the judges look on.

It’s all part of the welding competition hosted by the Welding & Advanced Manufacturing Technology Program, which sees high school juniors and seniors from around the state and beyond descend on Mitchell to take part in a little friendly competition as well as to get a look at the opportunities available to them at Mitchell Technical College.

“It is mainly for the students to explore the manufacturing world through competition,” said Travis Peterson, director for the Welding & Advanced Manufacturing Technology Program at MTC.

The competition is in its seventh year at the school and has become a showcase event for the welding and manufacturing program. Students begin the competition phase back at their high school, where they are administered an online welding exam, the results of which are relayed back to the judges. Those students then arrive at Mitchell Technical College for a physical welding exam.

They attempt a number of welding styles and techniques and are graded on their performance before the scores are compiled and the top finishers calculated.

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“Welding quality, strength of the welds and knowledge,” Peterson said about the criteria the students will be judged on.

The competition is good-spirited fun, and doing well is a point of pride for those involved. But the real prizes are two-fold, with high school upperclassmen getting a chance to explore further educational opportunities in a skilled trade and industry members getting a chance to pitch employment opportunities after graduation.

For Mitchell Technical College, inviting potential students into its state-of-the-art labs is a chance to show off the type of training they provide.

“We want to expand on their skill. We get them here and show them the four welding labs we have and some of the intricate side of manufacturing. That includes non-destructive testing, ultrasound, particle testing, machining skill development, drafting classes. We also have four robotic welders at MTC, and we teach them to program those robots how to weld,” Peterson said.

It’s a program that can deliver skilled workers in one to three years, depending on the path the students choose. A student can earn a diploma after the first year, and a degree after a second year of schooling. Students can return for a third year for another degree if they want to continue their education before moving on.

“In reality, they could end up with three degrees in two years,” Peterson said. “It’s all related to manufacturing. We don’t just teach welding, but also the machining side of things. And we have access to top-of-the-line equipment that some other members of our industry are jealous of.”

There are about 55 students enrolled in the Mitchell Tech program, and in reality, some of the students among the competitors Friday morning could join them in the next year or two. Many of the students — Peterson estimates as much as half — come from a family agricultural background, where welding is a long-established work skill, but nearly all have taken welding or manufacturing-based classes from their local high school CTE instructor.

Peterson said most of the students, some of whom have come from as far away as Washington state to take part in the competition in past years, are the type who prefer to get hands-on with their work and their studies.

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“They don’t mind getting dirty. They want to do things with their hands,” Peterson said. “Our students do take general education classes, and it’s well-rounded, but if you ask them they’d rather sit in the lab eight hours a day machining or welding or making sparks. They have a passion for creation.”

Welders in demand

Interest in the competition and the program in general have been strong, Peterson said. That’s good, because the demand for skilled welders and machinists continues to be high, both regionally and around the country.

Peterson should know.

“I graduated in 1991, and since then I’ve had employment as a manager and in hiring and filling these positions. That’s going on 30 years now,” Peterson said. “I’ve never recognized anyone not hiring, even during slowdowns. In reality, right now, I think I have at least 20 to 50 job openings for one student. That’s just through emails, without me looking for them.”

The South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation lists welding and manufacturing on its Hot Careers list. The need for welders is expected to grow at a higher-than-typical rate of 13% with 432 annual openings.

The program at Mitchell Technical College works with several industry partners, and together they promote the school program as well as the work opportunities that can come with, and sometimes even before, graduation.

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Students from around the state Friday converged on the campus of Mitchell Technical College for its annual welding competition. Dozens of high school junior and seniors were on hand for the event, which also included a tour of the college campus and interaction time with industry partners.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Ed Thompson is the plant manager for Trail King in Mitchell, one of several manufacturers that work closely with Mitchell Tech. He said the partnership between the plant and the school is valuable.

“Obviously it works very well. As they attend Mitchell Tech and they work on their degree in welding and manufacturing technology, and then the benefit of working with Trail King and getting that experience in the very heavy custom trailer build is pretty valuable,” Thompson said.

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Thompson said Trail King employs around 150 to 160 welders, including eight students working part time while they attend Mitchell Technical College. With that arrangement, those students are getting cutting-edge training at school and putting it to use on the floor of a major local manufacturer.

That’s a one-two punch that’s hard to beat, Thompson said.

“They are getting some trailer building experience over two or three years, whichever path they’re on, and when they get that degree they are very marketable and ready,” Thompson said.

Like Peterson, Thompson can also attest to the upward mobility in welding and manufacturing, and the usefulness of learning through Mitchell Tech. He himself was a product of a welding program at Mitchell Tech when he was in high school in the 1970s. He obtained a basic welding certificate through his time in the program, and has now been at Trail King for 40 years.

There is room to advance, and the demand is not going away anytime soon, he said.

“The door is wide open. There are a lot of promotions within and every manufacturer is in the same boat,” Thompson said. “If you have an opportunity, be the best at what you’re hired for today and get that skill. Then come to work and have a positive attitude and you’ll go where you want,” Thompson said. “Tomorrow they might be in engineering or leading a team. There are so many open doors in manufacturing, and it takes a lot of different people to keep this business running.”

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Students from around the state Friday converged on the campus of Mitchell Technical College for its annual welding competition. Dozens of high school junior and seniors were on hand for the event, which also included a tour of the college campus and interaction time with industry partners.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Trail King is not the only industry partner that sees the benefit of working closely with Mitchell Technical College.

“The quality of students I have hired out of MTC have a great work ethic, good manners, all around good employees. I’m very impressed with how they handle new employment — they are kind, respectful, have good attendance — all the things we could ask for in a new employee,” said Wendy Sommervold, senior human resource generalist for the Manitou Group in Yankton.

Carol Grode-Hanks, vice president for academics for Mitchell Technical College, said the welding competition held Friday is a great way to show how strong interest in the school’s programs is among high school students.

“We have students from Sturgis, Belle Fourche, Douglas, Mobridge, Aberdeen, Baltic, Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Huron and Valentine, Nebraska. The competition is limited to the first 75 registrants and we are pleased that students across the state come for a day filled with showcasing their top skills,” Grode-Hanks said.

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Welding judge Andre Tschoepe reviews entries Friday during the welding competition at Mitchell Technical College.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

She credited the program staff for keeping the department at the forefront of teaching methods and technology. Peterson and colleagues Jeb Schoenfelder and Gregg Thibodeau run a tight ship that is symbolic of the programs at the school, she said.

Peterson said he’s proud to be part of an in-demand program, and working with his colleagues and the students is as exciting for him and the staff as it is for the students who are looking forward to the next phase of their lives and careers, as well as the employers who are anxious to get the next crop of welders and manufacturers on their payroll.

The future is bright for those who want to put the work in, Peterson said, and the opportunities are many and varied. They just need to be ready to study and apply their lessons.

And then get ready to work.

“(Students) can really pick their flavor,” Peterson said.

Results of the competition were as follows:

  • 1st, Caymin Blindauer – Mitchell High School
  • 2nd, Conner Wipf – Mobridge-Pollock
  • 3rd, Gage Olson – Sioux Falls CTE (also accepted a $5000 scholarship as a junior)
  • 4th, Matthew Goodwin – Belle Fouche
  • 5th, Riely Winquist – Sioux Falls CTE
  • 6th, Caelan Farlee – Sturgis
  • 7th, Sean Moser – Mobridge
  • 8th, Cameron McCurdy – Mitchell High School
  • 9th, Trevor Hawley – Sioux Falls CTE
  • 10th, Nolan Youngbluth – Mitchell High School
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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