Popular classes paying off

Freshman Osvaldo Morales, left, and junior Cole Camp are seen in the welding booths during the Introduction to Welding class at Fairmont Jr./Sr. High School.

Jan. 20 marks the first day of Saturday Welding Academy, a 15-week program at Fairmont Jr./Sr. High School. The program is open to students, community members and students from other schools.

This will be the second Saturday Welding Academy, and there have been two Summer Welding Academy sections offered in the past.

Fairmont Area High School students may take the class at no charge, while other students and adults will be charged $250 for the 60-hour course.

Bob Bonin will teach the classes. He has been teaching in the school district for 20 years. He teaches careers in technical education, which include mechatronics, automobile repair and welding.

Bonin says that in the late 1970s, the vocational program at the school was huge, called the Martin County Vocational Center. At the time, there was a separate principal and counselor just for the vocational programs. Students from Welcome, Sherburn, Truman and Granada would get bused in for the two-hour block class.

In the mid 1980s, all of that kind of went away because there was a mentality in education that everyone needed to go off to a four-year college to get a degree in a field such as science or math. The economy also was going through a tough time and there was not a great need for more people in certain vocational trades.

“In the early 2000s, we started to see more need for vocational programs because we discovered as these people started to get older and hit retirement, we had not trained the next generation to take these jobs over, so that’s where the resurgence is,” Bonin explained. “Now, in the last five years, Martin County is at a real deficit for the need in the manufacturing areas.”

“When Joe [Brown] got hired here as our superintendent, we were just on the cusp of trying to get that foothold back in, and Joe saw the vision and said we’re gonna go with it,” he said.

Bonin said the school district has a tight tie-in with the local Chamber of Commerce and business leaders, and district officials are able to see that the more programs they have at the school, the more the community embraces it.

“In Fairmont alone, there’s Zierke Built Manufacturing, Weigh-Tronix, Hen-Way Manufacturing and Redi Haul Trailers. They all manufacture some product that requires workers in their shop. They have a great need for multiple types of workers,” Bonin explained.

They also have looked beyond Fairmont. Armstrong has two manufacturing firms that need workers. Jackson likewise needs trained people.

“The students that I train either in my welding program or in my automotive small engine program, they all have skill-sets when they graduate so that they can walk into any of those industries and take a job,” Bonin said.

He noted that during the school year, he, Principal Andy Traetow and Brown will take the welding class to Weigh-Tronix, Zierke, AGCO and Art’s Way Manufacturing in order to get tours and meet with some of the people at those businesses.

Bonin reported that Zierke has 7 to 10 Fairmont graduates working there on any given day, and they are welding based solely on what they learned in his classes.

Students have the option of taking two full semesters of welding classes at the high school, and the classes are always at full capacity.

“There’s a lot of validity to our program,” Bonin said. “It’s not just for fun,”

With some of the classes, students receive college credit.

While the Saturday Welding Academy classes are open to everyone in the community, they are popular among students. There are currently 10 students from Blue Earth already enrolled in the course.

New this time around are three more welding booths, which will make it possible for 20 people to take the class and learn several different types of welding.

“It’s a good setting and the Saturday class ends up being more serious because everyone is willing to give up a Saturday to be there,” Bonin said. “People are mindful and have a purpose for being there. The level of learning is at a higher level.”

At the end of the class, students take a safety test, and then they receive a certificate saying they completed the safety certifications for the welding career occupation. They also get a certificate saying they completed the class.

“Because we work with our local manufacturers, when [students] go to a place with the certificate saying that they successfully completed the program, that gives them an edge over someone else because they’ve completed a rigorous program,” Bonin explained.

Earlier this school year, the school received a Grow Rural Education grant worth $10,000 from the Monsanto Fund. Local farmers nominated the school and the money was used to purchase two virtual welders used in various classes, including Brad Johnson’s STEM 8 classes and Bonin’s welding classes.

“The nice thing is that it gives instant feedback and we can talk about what needs to be changed and they can try again,” Bonin said of the virtual welders.

“It’s also nice because I can be with them, right beside them and work with them without either of us getting burnt,” he noted.

The virtual welders guide the students so they learn the muscle memory associated with welding, including the angle and position of the gun and what speed they should be going. Instant results are shown on a computer screen. Bonin said the virtual welders help the students gain confidence.

The Welding Academy, virtual welders and the various vocational classes offered at the school are some of the ways the district — and community — are investing for the future.

“My passion is in getting those kids who aren’t planning on going to a four-year college and train them so that they can be a part of society, rather than a tax on society, and fill those needs,” Bonin said.

Those wanting more information or to sign up for the class can contact Bonin at bbonin@fairmont.k12.mn.us