A student uses a grinder to clean up a welding coupon, emitting a shower of sparks in the process. PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

Hancock County high-schoolers train for lucrative welding careers

BUCKSPORT — The welding shop at Bucksport High School is its own kind of music hall.

There’s the grating whine of a grinder as it chews through steel, emitting a shower of sparks in the process. There’s the machine-gun-like hammering of a bend tester machine as it bends steel, and there’s the low crackle of electrical arcs fusing metal together as students perfect their welding skills.

Despite the noise, it’s quite serene beneath the students’ mask-like protective helmets.

“It’s actually stress-relieving,” said Craig Ridley, a junior at Ellsworth High School, who is taking the welding class in Bucksport through the Hancock County Technical Center. “It’s more like just something you can turn your brain off to.”

A welding student practices fusing together two metal coupons through Shielded Metal Arc Welding, also known as stick welding.

Many people might think handling a device that emits electrical arcs hot enough to melt metal would be stressful. But the welding students find calm within the total focus required for a good, safe weld.

“Nothing else matters when I’m welding,” said Ethan Kane, a junior at Ellsworth High School. “It’s an awesome feeling; it really calms me down.”

“You’ve got to have a surgeon’s hand,” said Justin Burnett, a junior at Sumner Memorial High School, who said he often listens to A$AP Rocky or other rappers while he works. “Almost every day I’m listening to music, because it’s better than having a grinder in your ear.”

These young men are among the 14 welding students taught at Bucksport by Joel Pelletier, a welder with decades of experience in the field.

Over the past 18 years, Pelletier has trained high school students in a trade that is both lucrative and in high demand. According to the American Welding Society, a wave of retiring welders will leave the manufacturing and construction industry with a 290,000-welder deficit by 2020. That’s partly because there are fewer high schools teaching the trade, which gives the Bucksport students a considerable advantage.

“Median wage starting out is between $35,000 and $45,000,” Pelletier said. “And if you’re willing to travel, $50, $60 an hour is not unheard of. And you have per diems and stipends and bonuses that go along with that. It’s just crazy.”

Bucksport High School instructor Joel Pelletier discusses a pipe weld with Ellsworth junior Ethan Kane.

One of Pelletier’s students, Kyle Seile, is already raking in the dough. At 22 years old, Seile has already traveled to Hawaii twice for welding jobs, where he made over $2,000 a week for five to six months.

“It’s really nice to know you can work with your hands, and the sky’s the limit,” said Seile, who helped weld together pipes and boilers for large power plants in Hawaii. Seile worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week during the night shift, and his employer covered his travel, food and living expenses.

“I can make $70,000 only working five or six months out of the year, that’s pretty good,” he said.

Seile took Pelletier’s welding class for one year before graduating in 2012. After that he studied at Eastern Maine Community College’s two-year welding program, which Seile said is known in the industry as the best college for welding on the East Coast.

“We had people in their 40s from Florida come up just to take that schooling,” he said.

Only a handful of students are accepted into the program every year, and Seile thinks Pelletier’s class was what opened the door for him.

“There’s no way I would have gotten into that class if I hadn’t taken his class and had a good reference from him,” he said.

Welding is lucrative, but it’s not easy. Pelletier’s welding classes are structured to prepare students for certification exams where they must demonstrate a steady hand and precise aim while wielding a device that can melt steel.

Though there are dozens of certifications for different types of welding, the basic ones involve welding together two small pieces of carbon steel, called welding coupons. The test judges place the fused coupon in a bend tester, which bends the metal into a U-shape. If the weld breaks, or if there are imperfections detected, the student fails the test.

“The more certifications you have the more successful you’ll be and the more valuable to companies,” said Ellsworth junior Ethan Kane, who in his first year of welding has already earned four certifications. Kane will be able to start working on even more advanced certifications next year.

“We mimic that test so that doesn’t happen when they go for the certification,” Pelletier said. The 57-year-old said he doesn’t send students to EMCC to get tested unless he believes they’re ready.

“We’re almost batting 100 percent,” he said, about the rate at which his students pass their exams.

One of Pelletier’s current students is quite the welding prodigy. Ethan Kane, the junior at Ellsworth High School, has already passed four certifications in just his first year of welding classes.

“I love having my hood down and the sparks flying and all that stuff,” Kane said. “The more certifications you have the more successful you’ll be and the more valuable to companies.”

There is a list of certifications, along with the names of the students who have earned them, on the wall of the welding shop. Kane’s name is near the top. A lobsterman, Kane said he always liked working with his hands. But Mr. Pelletier’s reputation as a teacher was largely what led Kane to welding.

“I heard about Mr. Pelletier and how good of an instructor he was and how successful kids coming out of the program could be,” Kane said. “So that’s what drove me to do it really.”

Kane’s not the only one, and Pelletier’s classes are in high demand. This year marked the first time Pelletier had enough students to teach a class in the afternoon and in the morning. He also teaches adult education night classes that start in September. The classes are once a week and cover the same skills he teaches the high-schoolers.

Pelletier said he strives to help his students build a comfortable future for themselves.

“The more I train them, the less I have to worry about when they go home if they’re going to be able to feed their families,” he said. “That’s my goal.”

David Roza

David Roza

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.
David Roza

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