Two Fall River manufacturers gave local students an opportunity to receive fun, hands-on experience in welding.

E.K. Machine and Robbins Manufacturing sponsored the Fun with Torches Middle School Welding Camp the past two weeks, hosted by Madison Area Technical College. Children from Portage, Lodi, Arlington and Pardeeville attended this year’s camp, sparking interest in future welding careers.

While students had to pay to register for the camp, Robbins covered tuition fees and E.K. Machine donated all the metal. MATC offered two, one-week camps for beginners, students age 12-15, which wrapped up this week, and the advanced camp will begin July 29.

Jamie Hahn’s son, Nathan, finished the beginner camp last summer. Hahn, an incoming sophomore at Columbus High School, enjoyed the experience so much he couldn’t wait to register for the advanced camp.

“By the second day, he was so excited that he wanted to stop back at Robbins Manufacturing and show them what he’d been working on,” Jamie Hahn said. “He wanted to sit and talk to our connection over there. They were kind of ‘geeking out’ over welds.”

Jamie Hahn serves as principal of St. Mary’s School in Portage. Her son attended the school through eighth grade. Nathan Hahn had a chance to job-shadow manufacturers at Robbins as an eighth-grader and found out about Fun with Torches, which was beginning its first year. Instructors work with students to complete a project throughout the week-long experience. Hahn built a mini grill at last year’s camp. This summer, students in the beginner camp are producing bird feeders and those in the advanced camp will create two benches to be placed in Portage.

“Through that experience, he really developed an interest in welding,” Jamie Hahn said.

The camp lit a creative spark in Hahn and the CHS student hopes to pursue welding as a future career. He plans to take welding courses at the high school and is interested in completing the MATC program in a few years. In recent years, manufacturers have struggled to fill skilled positions and a demand for welders remains high. According to Salary.com, the average pay for welders entering the field in Wisconsin is $38,000 per year, with some earning $44,000 or more.

“Academics is a big deal and we talk about college a lot but we forget that there are so many children who are good at building things with their hands,” Hahn said. “There are so many career opportunities that are maybe not at a traditional four-year college, they are at technical colleges. I think we need to be looking more at those.”

Linda Nellen, campus manager at MATC-Portage, said the college received a three-year grant last year to offer Fun with Torches. Nellen said the camp received great interest with several students placed on waiting lists for this year’s sessions.

“It just exploded,” Nellen said. “We have 14 students in the basic camps and probably 15 on the wait list, so we could do twice as much as what we’re doing.”

Nellen said registration for the advanced camp has been full since February. With interest growing, MATC plans to offer a high school camp for students 16 and older in October.

“Our instructors are great and fun,” Nellen said. “They make it exciting. It helps the kids understand if it’s something they want to pursue or maybe just do as a hobby.”

Jamie Hahn said having a middle school camp is ideal, because it allows students to ponder career interests before high school.

“I’m glad they’re looking at manufacturing camps for kids so they can gauge their interests,” Hahn said.

According to Nellen, students can earn a welding certificate in one school year. MATC offers a welding program at the Truax campus in Madison. The Portage campus does offer welding courses, but not the full program.

Looking ahead, with one year left in the grant cycle, Nellen said the college will consider offering more welding sessions or a metal fabrication camp. She said there’s also been requests for a plumbing camp.

“I can’t imagine not offering more next year; it’s hard to turn these kids away,” Nellen said. “It breaks my heart not letting everyone come, but we need to limit it to be safe and for students to have the best experience.”

Follow Kevin Damask on Twitter @kdamask or contact him at 608-963-7323.

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