TROY — Steve Brownell is sparking some local interest in the art and science of welding.
Brownell recently opened the Virginia School of Metal. The goal is to teach students a technical skill that’s not only fun, but something that has practical applications.
“From the architectural high-end quality metal work standpoint, there’s a need for what we do — we have a niche in the market,” Brownell said. “I always had a desire, just that little inner voice to teach and share what I’ve learned over the last 40 years.”
The school launched its first classes this past weekend. An introductory 16-hour course covers the background of welding, safety, equipment and then, under expert guidance, students will have a chance to apply their new skills by crafting a welded piece of metal artwork to take home.
The classes range from $150 to $375.
In addition to electric arc welding, Brownell also plans to teach classes on gas tungsten arc welding, along with metal art and functional fabrication.
“So many people say, ‘I can stick metal together,' but they don’t know how to weld,” Brownell said. After the class, “They’ll have the skills to actually weld metal. [You’re] creating an arc that’s 10,000 degrees ... Controlling the weld — that’s where the skill comes in,” he said. “And that’s the skill we teach ... You learn how to apply the weld properly.”
In recent years, “People seem to gravitate toward technical fields and what that has done is in the manufacturing side of things — especially welding — is it’s created a nationwide shortage of skilled people.” Brownell said that's why he thinks the welding industry is poised for growth.
Brownell, who will also continue to operate his other business, Brownell Metal Studio, said learning the art and skill of welding definitely opens career doors, although that’s not his primary intent in starting the school.
But for anyone who is interested in the career element, Mike Vaughan, a welding professor with J. Sargeant Reynolds College in Richmond, said the job outlook for welders is very good.
“The majority of my students decide to go into the welding profession because they want to learn a skilled trade that is needed and useful, and because they want the satisfaction of building something with their own hands,” Vaughan said by email. “That’s something they know they can be proud of.”
Vaughan said the welding industry is poised for growth for several reasons. Among them: Welders are retiring at twice the rate of those entering the field; the average age of the approximately 500,000 welders in the country is over 50; and America’s desire to repair and expand transportation infrastructure will create and sustain demand for welding skills.
In addition, Vaughan said emerging technologies such as nuclear and wind power will create other areas where welders will be needed. Most students, Vaughan said, choose to enter construction, manufacturing or transportation, although welding has opportunities and applications in nearly every industry.
Adam Abbate, of Crozet, has worked for Brownell for several months and has done artistic and industrial welding. Abbate said he prefers the former.
“This is high-end fabrication, and I like it,” he said. “I think with the big industrial welding that I’ve done, it was more rushed, but this fabrication we do here, you take time and you actually see [a project] being built,” Abbate said.
Brownell, who said he got his start in welding “by accident” in 1974 while working at a manufacturing facility in upstate New York, said he, too, enjoys the architectural and ornamental side of the business more.
A family business, Brownell started his shop behind his house in a pole barn and eventually moved to the present location in October. He employs about a half-dozen people.
“There’s a lot of things that we don’t do on purpose,” he said. “This is what we’re best at, this is what we know.”
“I think for anybody, no matter what you’re doing ... you should really enjoy what you’re doing,” Brownell continued. “It’s going to make it a lot easier for the next 30 or 40 years … But if you love it, you’ll automatically be better at it.”
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