Mike Ostrowski learned to weld early in life, and over 28 years as a journeyman in a shipyard he mastered the full range of techniques and insights that go with skillful welding — angle, speed, power, and so forth. He also honed the internal habits — resourcefulness, judgment, and self-reliance — that make a welder more than successful: they make him truly professional.

Today, just barely middle-aged, the professional has become a teacher at a time when shipyards, pipelines, and thousands of manufacturers are in critical need of skilled welders. Ostrowski heads a two-year-old welding instruction program at Ohio Technical College in Cleveland. “What we’re trying to do is take all of our skills and pour them into the students’ heads,” he explained recently, with a hint of reflection but even more of the practical wisdom that animates him. It’s the latter that is giving welding students at OTC the sort of life-shaping experience that will reward them, and may save domestic manufacturing from complete reliance on automation.

OTC teaches more than welding, and for more that 40 years it’s been going through some “life changes”, too. It began in 1969 as a six-week diesel-power training program, and after adding numerous other courses and expanding to fill two campuses, including its main location at a former automotive parts plant, it offers a range of technical training course to certify modern mechanics.

Now, the curriculum covers automotive technology comprehensively, including auto-diesel technology; collision repair and refinishing; classic car restoration; high-performance and racing technology; and specialty program in motorcycle mechanics, the PowerSport Institute. Since 2000, OTC has been in partnership with BMW of North America to provide two-level factory training for service technicians.

The welding program at OTC is a 48-week program leading to a Master Welding certificate, with full-spectrum coverage of welding theory, processes, methods, and techniques. Students learn to read blueprints and welding diagrams. They’re taught welding processes — oxyacetylene welding and cutting, plasma arc and arc-carbon arc cutting, shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), gas-tungsten arc and gas-metal arc (TIG/MIG) welding, flux-core arc (FCA) welding — in the classroom, in the testing lab, and in a fully outfitted workshop that supports up to 65 students at a time. More than 120 students have been enrolled since the program began in 2009, and now courses are being offered in two shifts, day and evening. Plans are underway to grow the program too, prompted by interested students and desperate manufacturers.

One of the world’s largest machine-tool builders is so anxious to hire skilled welders for its assembly operations that it offers signing bonuses up to $2,500 to qualified candidates.

“My phone rings off the hook with people needing welders for their work, and they get mad if I can’t provide one,” Ostrowski said. He listed automotive parts manufacturers, shipyards, and construction contractors among those seeking his help to locate and place qualified welders. The last of these includes interest from teams building oil-and-gas pipelines, refineries, and nuclear-power plants, very demanding projects that will pay handsomely for capable workers.

“But, they’re not ready yet,” he continued. “They’re still learning.”

Much of what the students need to learn is the practical understanding and personal bearing that Ostrowski and other professional welder learned over many years. He noted a statistic that more than 300,000 professional welders are in retirement now, leaving employers to rely too much on automation. “Welding is an art that no one does any longer,” he observed. “Everything is done by machine now.” The last point is delivered with a sense of determination, indicating plans to reverse such a trend.

Ostrowski and his staff of five welding instructors present a curriculum that includes six-week courses in basic welding and advanced welding, followed by courses that focus on welding pipe, as well as aluminum and stainless steel. In addition, an eight-week course in X-ray welding is offered, developed in cooperation with the Westinghouse Welding Institute, with the intention of training welders for the specific task of welding structures for nuclear-power projects.

In addition to the classroom, lab, and workshop sessions that prepare students for certification, there is a concerted effort to instill professional standards in the students. That means the students are made to understand the importance of timeliness, orderliness, thoroughness, and honesty in the work they are assigned. “This is their job site,” Ostrowski observed, so he ensures they take care of the facilities and the equipment. “When you go to a job, they expect you to clean up after your work at the end of the day. So we expect that, too. And you’d be amazed at how much difference it makes in the program. Everyone takes care of themselves, as well as their equipment: it’s a matter of professional responsibility.”

The students’ tuition covers welding helmets and jackets, and a kit with a grinder and various other hand tools.

Lincoln Electric has been particularly supportive of the OTC welding program, helping to organize the curriculum and outfitting the operation with an extensive inventory of welding equipment and ventilation systems. Because the program is growing so steadily, Ostrowski has coordinated the expansion plans with the students’ professional development.

As more welding booths were installed, students fabricated the new TIG welding stands, towers that carry the ventilation equipment, welding tables, and a pipe system that carries welding gas from a tank located outdoors.

“We teach them the way they should be taught, the way the work is really done, not just the way that it is drawn up in a book,” Ostrowski emphasized. That may mean leaving the workshop to weld pipe on an outdoor set-up, rain or shine, wind, snow, or whatever weather conditions prevail. “In the end, if they’re going to be ship repairmen, pipefitters, ironworkers, or some kind of construction worker, they’re going to be outside working like this,” he reasoned.

If that sounds unfair, it has not diminished students’ appreciation for the training, nor the interest of new enrollees. Noting that it’s clear there are not enough training opportunities for welders to fill the available job openings, nor for the number of candidates interested in filling those jobs, Ostrowski holds out his belief that the OTC program is drawing interest from students near and far because the course is more than technical training.

“Our course is a year long,” he said, comparing it to standard welding instruction. “We slow it down, we make them think a bit more. We make sure they grasp it before we give them a test.”

The OTC program also offers work-in-training opportunities. “We have a lot of kids here that work part time for employers who need some welders, and will taking some of their time to instruct students on the job, making their skills better.” Ostrowski’s network of colleagues and acquaintances over his 28-year career has been instrumental in developing those openings. He’s proud of the fact that all the graduates of his program are working, and regularly relay their achievements and gratitude to him through Facebook.

In the course of developing OTC’s welding training program, the teacher has learned a lot, too. “I probably know more about the kids here than many of their parents do, because I end up becoming a father figure to them as they go through this program,” Ostrowski said.

Ohio Technical College’s welding program is thriving not simply because it’s filling employers’ extraordinary demand for welders, but because the program director, Mike Ostrowski, is converting his own experience and understanding into lessons in welding professionalism. His students learn to weld, but they also develop the sense of responsibility they must have to make decisions on the job, and in the world they’ll help to build and maintain.