As an accomplished welder, Gary Butkowski decided long ago to share his knowledge and spent more than 20 years teaching the profession at a prison and a military base. He continues to teach today, giving high school students the benefit of his experience and know-how.
Butkowski equips students at the Wright Technical Center in Buffalo, Minn., with the most in-demand skill sets in welding, from brazing and flame cutting to TIG welding processes that utilize equipment that wasn’t yet available when he launched his career nearly 40 years ago.
The job forecast for Butkowski’s welding students looks good. Employment in the field is expected to grow 15 percent between 2010-2020, slightly higher than the national employment growth rate during the same period. Modern welding technologies have contributed to the growth and the appeal of the field for students, both male and female, many deciding to pursue a welding career as early as middle school.
Butkowski estimates that he taught welding to 500-600 inmates in St. Cloud for 28 years until he retired at age 50, and has instructed students from all walks of life on a military base and in schools. During that time, he’s found there are a few universal rules that apply to all future welders.
Career Journal: What do the next generation of workers need to know about the welding field?
Butkowksi: The employers I talk to say that the biggest problem with employees is that they don’t show up to work. Most of the employees have the skills to do the job, but they’re just not responsible in the younger generation. The younger generation now, if they don’t show up to work, they don’t think it’s a big deal. But it is a big deal when it comes to manufacturing, because everything is scheduled around man-hours, and if that man isn’t there to produce the hours, it delays the completion of a job … and then the person you’re working for is complaining that you’re not getting the work done, and they end up losing business because they can’t get the work done on time.
Career Journal: Do you ever notice a disconnect between student expectations and what employers want?
Butkowksi: A lot of these kids only look at how much money they’re going to make. And they think they’re going to go out and get a $25 per hour job right out of school, and that’s not the way it works.
Until or unless these students realize that they have to work their way up getting there, they will never succeed in welding. They say it’s too hard, it’s too dirty, whatever. They don’t really want to put in the effort. If you grew up as a child playing Nintendo and playing all these games, and sitting in a clean environment, this is totally different than that. It’s noisy, it’s smoky, and it’s dirty. It’s not a glamorous job.
Career Journal: But I’m sure you’ve had career highlights. Your years teaching inmates must have been an interesting time for you.
Butkowksi: Working in a prison and seeing these guys go out and come back was [disheartening]…But when they go out in the world to weld and when they contact us and say thanks for doing what you did, it’s appreciated. I had an inmate call me about a year ago and thanked me. He said that I didn’t let the class mess around, and that he [and his peers] always had to be working. That’s one thing that I stress to these students, that you’re here to learn how to work… and get the job. If you’re going to horseplay around, then I don’t really want you here.
Career Journal: So who are the best welders?
Butkowksi: The students I find jobs for, I usually call their bosses after six months or so and find out how they’re doing, and are they showing up to work and are they producing what they’re supposed to produce and everything else.
Most of them are very good, but I don’t recommend students that I know aren’t very good as far as attendance goes. If they have a poor attendance record with me… they are probably not going to have a good record with their employer.
Career Journal: Any parting words for those who want to rise in the ranks of welding?
Butkowksi: You need to be at work on time, to work all day, and to work every day. And don’t skip one day a week or one day a month. Realize, while you’re working for someone and they’re making money off of your labor, you’re also getting paid for your labor. As long as you treat your boss with respect, they are going to treat you with respect and do as much as possible for you.
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