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A Welder Reflects: 'I’m A Different Person Than I Was. I Have A Trade.'

KUOW Photo/Jake Warga

When Shannon Kelley started a free worker retraining program last summer, he was 43 years old and had been laid off for five years.

He made some money staging houses, and he had a few odd jobs in the service industry, but he wanted more.

So he started a program to learn how to weld, a training that took place at the century-old Vigor Industrial shipyard on Seattle’s Harbor Island. It was a joint venture between the boat-building company and South Seattle Community College.

KUOW aired a series about these welders-in-training for a jobs series last summer and recently checked in with Kelley, one of the workers we interviewed.

He described his job as a bit of a grind, literally: “Lots of cutting of steel, building up test plates, going through test plates, messing up test plates, and finally getting the one that was just perfect to send in for X-ray inspection to see if the welds are sound.”

Welding is in demand in industries from construction to aerospace. The pay is good for that reason – and also because it’s dangerous work. Kelley pointed to dozens of divots in the thick suede of his protective jacket – made by welding overhead grooves.

“All the pocks along my arms, like, metal has rained on me,” Kelley said. “Once you get used to not being afraid of it and you can pour it up in a groove and it stays, it’s pretty magical.”

Kelley has become a sort of welding evangelist and has tried to convince his friends to learn to wield a torch.

“Eventually I would like to teach this trade to people and let people know that it’s a pretty amazing thing,” he said.

But first, Kelley needs a job. He recently got the news he has been waiting for: His welds were declared sound and he is now a certified welder.

He is interviewing at Vigor, where he learned, and has leads on other companies. About a third of Kelley’s classmates have jobs lined up.

So what has changed in the five months since he spoke with KUOW?

“I re-forged myself,” he said. “I’m a different person than I was. I have a trade.”

Year started with KUOW: 2008