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Regional Commission
NETL Advances Innovative Program to Create a Pipeline of Next-Generation Welders

A technical education program developed in partnership with NETL will hit the road in central Appalachia to deliver customized training and prepare workers for careers that require advanced welding and manufacturing skills. 

The Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, will use $336,796 in federal funds to work with institutions such as Mountwest Community and Technical College to offer hands-on training in classrooms and a mobile training laboratory.

The mobile lab is a distinctive feature of the RCBI initiative because it is designed to deliver on-the-job, fast-track certifications and customized training at companies located in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

“Travel can be difficult in our rugged terrain,” said Mike Friel, the institute’s director of communications. In addition to steep hills and winding roads that can be treacherous in severe weather, many parts of the region are isolated, making travel to a class time-consuming, which cuts into a firm’s productivity.

To address these concerns, RCBI’s mobile program will take training directly to the workers.

“At NETL, we support efforts that address challenging issues to provide training and meet critical workforce needs,” said Briggs White, NETL technology manager for Crosscutting Materials. “This mobile teaching lab represents an innovative, effective approach to meeting that goal while helping individuals master new skills that prepare them for successful careers,” White said.

The collaboration among the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), NETL and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) exemplifies how the federal government can coordinate its efforts across agencies and develop beneficial workforce programs, informed by community stakeholders, to aid energy communities. ARC provided strong expertise related to developing the educational elements, and NETL provided the advanced materials and manufacturing knowledge. Together with their strong Appalachian stakeholder networks, they produced five regional projects that will train workers for good-paying jobs. 

This type of federal collaboration, local engagement, and workforce training activity is consistent with and supportive of the Biden Administration’s recently released Initial Report to the President on Empowering Workers Through Revitalizing Energy Communities. NETL supported the Administration’s Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization to produce the report. The IWG was established by Executive Order 14008, Sec. 218 on Jan. 27, 2021, to ensure the shift to a clean energy economy creates good-paying union jobs, spurs economic revitalization, remediates environmental degradation, and supports energy workers in coal, oil and gas and power plant communities.

The RCBI was one of five programs to receive funds this spring through the Advanced Welding Workforce Initiative (AWWI). According to White, the AWWI is funded with $750,000 allocated by DOE and $250,000 from ARC, which is a federal agency that focuses on economic development in the 13-state Appalachian region.

AWWI is a partnership between the ARC and NETL to increase education and training for advanced technical workers in Appalachia who can apply the latest high-temperature materials, manufacturing processes and service/repair techniques developed in DOE’s High Performance Materials program for use in the nation’s power generation infrastructure. The initiative also supports comprehensive training programs for careers in Appalachia’s growing automotive, aerospace, aviation and petrochemical industries, which will need workers with advanced manufacturing skills in welding, robotics and other specialties.

The RCBI will use its two-year grant to obtain 10 gas tungsten arc welders and one robotic gas tungsten arc welding unit, as well as a utility trailer to haul equipment and materials for the mobile instruction, said Jeff Schwartz, education program manager for ARC.

Once on-site, instruction can be tailored for specific needs and completed by offering training before the start of shifts or at the end of the workday, which minimizes disruptions and lost production time.

The training and the workers it will produce are needed as the region, which has faced serious economic challenges caused by the downturn of the coal industry, prepares for growth. Demand for workers with the right skills is ramping up. Employers frequently contact the RCBI and ask, “Do you have the skilled workforce in your area that we require,” Friel said.

The RCBI anticipates at least 18 students will obtain new employment, 35 workers and trainees will obtain new or enhance their current positions, and at least 10 businesses will be improved in the first year of the AWWI grant.

The four other programs to receive AWWI funding are:

  • Belmont College in St. Clairsville, Ohio, will use $281,603 to partner with Eastern Gateway Community College and Ohio Mid-East Career and Technology Center to launch the Eastern Ohio Appalachia Pipe Welding and Fabrication Project. This regional approach will equip advanced welders with specialized skills required by natural gas and combined-cycle power plants, and growing sectors such as oil and gas and metal fabrication, which will soon need hundreds of qualified workers for a proposed ethane cracker plant in Belmont County.
  • Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama, will use $198,000 to purchase training equipment to strengthen robotic welding programs on its Decatur and Huntsville campuses. The addition of robotic welding equipment and subsequent courses will equip students with much-needed skills sets, while incumbent workers will be able to obtain a certificate in robotic welding to advance their careers.
  • Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland, Kentucky, will use $105,281 to update and expand the welding program on its Harlan campus and increase the number of available scholarships. The program will provide hands-on training in skills such as advanced alloy joining and advanced bending and fitting, along with education in mathematics, digital literacy and communication.
  • Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood, Pennsylvania, will use $78,320 to expand training and add new welding certifications, including the joining of advanced alloys using robotics, to meet employer needs in high-temperature power plants, as well as aviation, automotive and petrochemical industries.

Funding awards were made on their basis to connect with pressing regional needs, including expanding offerings into economically distressed areas, targeting designated Opportunity Zones and recruiting workers in long-term recovery from substance use disorder.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory develops and commercializes advanced technologies that provide clean energy while safeguarding the environment. NETL’s work supports DOE’s mission to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy and environmental challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.