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(Milton, WI) Nick Crow, Gazette

Beloit resident Kelvin Haley Jr. almost didn't participate in the welding boot camp at Blackhawk Technical College's Advanced Manufacturing Center in Milton.

He was the last one admitted into the seven-week class that ended Friday.

Now he thinks it might make a big difference in his life.

“I don't know what the future holds, but I feel like I have my foot in the door,” Haley said.

BTC offered the welding boot camp with help from the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board and employers in Rock and Green counties. The camp was designed to teach unskilled workers a trade they could use to get good jobs.

Haley, 32, has had his share of troubles, legal and otherwise. But he said programs such BTC's camp help lead people to places they never thought they'd go.

“This is a very beneficial program for someone who's been through things and doesn't know what they want to do,” Haley said. “You learn a lot. I'm truly amazed. I didn't know anything about welding. I knew how to use a tape measure and a ruler, but now I truly understand the basics of welding.”

Haley said the program has given him and his classmates a new skill, safety certification and leads on potential jobs.

“Basically, this class is 'no one left behind,'” Haley said. “It's about getting us a job and getting us a trade. One thing about this program, we had employers come in and talk to us, and next week we are going out and putting in applications with companies and going from there.”

“It's a blessing,” he said. “I never thought about welding but realized it's important to have a trade behind you.”

Haley's experience shows how organizations such as the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board can help provide valuable training to people who need it, said welding instructor Jack Reinhart.

“These groups came together with BTC to provide the boot camp,” Reinhart said. “We are taking students with various backgrounds, unskilled, and training them on the essentials.”

Gail Graham, business services coordinator for the workforce development board, said the boot camp was paid for with federal money that trickled down through various state programs. The $47,000 agreement between the group and BTC not only trains people and puts them to work, but also creates a pipeline for people who haven't considered continuing their education.

"What they've learned is that they can," Graham said. "One of them has already signed up for school in the fall. That would not have happened had he not attended this boot camp."

Graham said the boot camp helps shrink the skills gap.

“What's interesting about this program is that several potential employers in Rock and Green counties are involved with the development of the class and what they need from welders from this program,” Reinhart said.

In addition to welding skills, Reinhart also taught soft skills such as working with others, coming to work on time and understanding the structure of a company.

“I treat this boot camp as though I'm the employer and these students are the employees,” Reinhart said. “Ten students started, and 10 students are finishing. They are learning a trade and getting a personal identity.”

Also Friday, SSI Technologies employee Carlos Garcia finished up a five-day computerized numerical control (CNC) boot camp, where he practiced programming on a machine with classmates and co-workers.

Unlike the welding boot camp at the same site, the CNC boot camp helped people who were already employed learn additional skills that could be useful in their jobs.

“They want us to learn the fundamentals of these machines,” Garcia said. “It'll help us in the processes at the CNC shop."

Garcia, who has worked at SSI for almost a year, and his co-workers were paid to attend the training. It is good for employees to learn additional skills and use the newest equipment, Garcia said.

Tom Pleuger, CNC instructor, said he sees a chronic shortage of skilled machinists, and boot camps like this are part of the solution.

Employees participating in the weeklong boot camp can get credit through BTC. However, the camps can't replace real class time, Pleuger said. He hopes those who finish the boot camp come back and take additional classes.

“It's a tool to help them,” Pleuger said. “Carlos started at SSI semi-skilled but not a machinist. He's knowledgeable, but this course is designed to take semi-skilled workers and fast track them. Conceivably, when Carlos gets back to work, he can get right on a machine and apply what he's learned.”

The boot camp is designed to fill specific needs requested by employers, Pleuger said. Garcia, for one, plans to attend additional classes, he said.

“There is such a lack of skilled candidates for many of these jobs,” Pleuger said. “It's great whenever we can get them up and running and can help fill that gap.”

“I think they really enjoyed it and found value in it,” he said.

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