October 21. 2012 - The acrid smell of liquified metal hangs heavy in the air as superheated sparks shower behind the blue plastic curtains that shield passersby.
Inside the welding booth, one hand inside a dirty yellow glove takes hold of two strips of steel while the other wraps around the base of a gun that will employ what seems more like magic than science to bond the strips together.
The joint complete, a gloved hand lifts a dark mask, revealing a face on which is written the desire to create with patience and precision.
The act of welding to some is more than a craft. It's an art that hundreds of thousands will need to master if their ranks are to keep pace with growing demand.
In 2008, there was a nationwide shortage of about 250,000 welders, and that figure has remained relatively constant to this day, says Jason Walsh, who heads the welding technology program at Front Range Community College in Colorado.
There were 337,300 jobs for welders, cutters, solderers and brass workers in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2020 that number is expected to have grown 15%.
As a result, enrollment in welding courses at Front Range has increased - from about 60 each semester nine years ago, when Walsh started teaching there, to 350 this year.
"From (the welder's) standpoint, the recession's basically over, and there's a huge upturn in work," says Bryan McClure, a training manager with LPR Construction in Loveland, Colo.
Specializing in heavy steel construction, LPR's projects have included the backbones for two baseball parks, the Colorado Rockies' Coors Field in Denver and Marlins Park in Miami. And it's hiring FRCC students, "absolutely," McClure said, paying them $16 an hour.
Keeping up with demand
"Right now, they are disappearing," Walsh said of welders across the U.S., the majority of whom are 50-plus years old and either retired or close to retirement.
"We're not replacing them as quickly as they're going away."
And that shrinking workforce is needed to address America's aging infrastructure and needs of the energy industry, Walsh said.
"We have pipelines that stretch from Utah to Pennsylvania, from Canada to Texas," Walsh said, "and that requires a lot of welders."
One of those welders is a former student who, at 19, is training in underwater welding in Florida. He's making $80,000 a year doing so.
High School senior Dillan Morrison grew up in a family of welders and thinks he'll continue the legacy by taking up a job in either pipeline or fabrication welding. "I know there's a high demand," he said, his fingers and palms blackened an hour into class.
Selling students on a career
Professional welders and educators need to take a multipronged approach to procuring and training the next generation of welders, Walsh said.
Visiting high schools is key, he said. There, he and others can talk to students about how the industry has changed and improved over time.
Safety is more of a focus, the pay is "getting a lot better" - it's not atypical for a graduate to make $20 per hour - and there's a greater integration of technology. Robotic welding is quickly expanding, Walsh said, and has welders programming machinery to perform tasks for them.
In the end, says Walsh, you have to convince the students it's a good, respectable career.