Success, hindsight 20/20 for South Carolina sheet metal welders

Three-week course put hundreds to work, grew local from 125 to 415 members

FAIRFAX, Va. – Two years ago, Mark Lemon took over as training coordinator and business manager at Local 399 in Aiken, SC and inherited one of the biggest challenges of his career. With the start of the 198,344-acre Savannah River project on the horizon, as well as other large projects in the region, hundreds of certified welders were needed, and it was up to Lemon, and his 125-member local, to fill the positions. To do this, Lemon called on the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry, to help staff and supply two three-week concentrated welding programs with the goal of turning out certified welders and putting them to work right away.

To date, Local 399 has 415 members due to the influx from the projects – a more than 300 percent increase – and welders are still working. A large amount of the increased training died down this year, but in the spring, approximately 130 additional positions – one-third welders – will be needed to staff a nuclear plant project near Columbia, SC. This time, the implementation of the program won’t be nearly as big a challenge for Lemon. He’s been there and survived already.

“It was a throw of the dice. The big jobs came, and they came in my backyard. We hit the lottery,” Lemon said. “We had a huge demand for a lot of people and we had to recruit and train to make that happen. To train welders, it’s a slow and expensive process. You can’t train welders overnight. You can’t do it in a week. They’ve got to learn their skills.”

Each three-week intensive course took cable installers, housewives and masons and turned them into entry-level, certified welders, ready to work for contractors on the projects in the Southeast.

“We came up with a program, we set it up and implemented it, and it works,” Lemon said. “Because of it, we trained them, and they’re out on the job, making a good livelihood.”

Although the concentrated welding program was new to Local 399, it was introduced in Knoxville, Tenn. in 2008 when sheet metal workers needed training for a large power plant project.

“It’s designed to take people off the street without experience and in three weeks teach them, get them to pass the hiring test, certify them and get them jobs,” said Steve Kowats, ITI’s welding and industrial specialist and co-founder of the program. “When South Carolina came up, we already had the model. We had the program.”

Since then, the program has been facilitated in Atlanta and Detroit in addition to South Carolina. During the program in Atlanta, business managers and training coordinators were invited to learn how to put the program on in their area if the need arose. Currently, 90 of the 160 ITI training centers in the United States and Canada are American Welding Society-accredited test facilities.

“Even if someone had welding experience, they had to show me. Prove it,” Kowats said. “It amazed me that you could take a kid who was working in a coffee shop that morning and, three weeks later, you would have a certified welder. I’ve never seen more people dedicated to the booth, hood down, welding. These guys and gals were hungry. It was definitely a success.”

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by Sheet Metal Worker’s International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout the United States and Canada. Located in Fairfax, Va., ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For more information about ITI, visit or call 703-739-7200.

Local 399, Mark Lemon, Savannah River project, Steve Kowats
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