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Heat is on for welders

Students vie for spots in state industrial skills competition

For a group of Rathdrum high school students, the heat of competition Friday came from 5,000-degree cutting torches slicing through steel plates.

Eleven students from Lakeland High School’s welding program took part in a timed exercise to determine which three will represent the school at a statewide competition in Boise next month.

Welding students from North Idaho usually attend a regional contest to pick who will go to the state competition of SkillsUSA, a national group serving high school and college students preparing for trade, technical and skilled service careers.

But the regional didn’t come together this year. So Lakeland’s industrial mechanics instructor, Corey Pettit, brought his students to the North Idaho College welding shop in northwest Coeur d’Alene. There, three of the college’s top welding students evaluated their cuts and welds Friday morning.

“I want my kids to be prepared,” Pettit said. “The more times I can get my kids out of their element and natural, comfortable environment, and up the stress level, it helps them out.”

The students were given drawings and a set of welding procedure specifications, and had 30 minutes to complete each task. They were judged on standards of accuracy as well as aesthetics.

The top three finishers were junior Brett Howell and seniors Cody Schwarzkopf and Gavin Pointer.

This will be the second trip to state for Pointer, 18, who’s in his third year of the welding class and plans to study agricultural engineering next fall at the University of Idaho. He placed second at regional and ninth at state last year.

“The best part of welding is knowing that you have a skill set that’s very usable in life,” he said. “Your equipment breaks down, you can fix it.”

And he’s done just that at the family farm in Hauser, as well as fashion decorative pieces like silhouettes.

With skilled welders in high demand, NIC’s welding program has grown more popular year after year, welding instructor Tim Straw said. Industries hiring welders include manufacturing, construction, mining and petroleum.

“We have been growing like crazy,” Straw said. “It’s just been a big boom the last four to five years. We’re kind of outgrowing this facility.”

NIC leases the shop from Outotec Coeur d’Alene, an energy products manufacturer. The facility includes 36 welding booths shared by 100 or more students a semester, Straw said.

“We’re here to support the community, the high schools, local industry,” he said. “That’s what the community college is for.”

In addition to the trip to Boise, the top welders won some tools of the trade from welding supplier A-L Compressed Gases Inc. of Spokane: an auto-darkening helmet for Howell, welding jacket for Schwarzkopf and welding gloves for Pointer.

Across town at the NIC campus, three students in Lakeland High’s precision machining program also were tapped Friday for the state contest: senior Tyler Jones, junior Steven Sheppard and sophomore Felix Lopez.

“It’s a great thing for my kids,” Pettit said of the contact with the college scene. “I try to get them exposed to as many things as we can.”