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Hidden gem

A rural Nebraska school prepares students for a world of opportunities

Small towns in Nebraska are practically the norm, but Curtis, Neb., is full of surprises. In addition to its access to top-notch hunting, fishing and hiking, Curtis offers financial incentives to families moving to the area as well as to new residents looking for land for residential, commercial and industrial development projects. The southern central town is also home to the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA), which is part of the University of Nebraska system. While one might not expect to find a nationally ranked two-year college in a town with the population of 939, Forbes placed it among the nation’s top 30 trade schools.

Welding inspector, Chuck Hatzenbuehler (right), describes the AWS certification criteria to the ag welding students at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA).

Dan Stehlik, NCTA’s ag mechanics lecturer, agrees that there is so much more to Curtis than meets the eye. And he would know. Stehlik is an alumnus of the college and actually took a welding class in the lab where he now is instructing. Unsurprisingly, he feels the same way about careers in welding as he does about Curtis – there are so many hidden gems to be discovered. Therefore, Stehlik’s goal is to make sure that every student that attends his classes learns more than just how welding can apply back on the farm or in a career in agriculture.

“I try to show my students that there’s more to welding than just doing repair projects in the garage,” he says. “Welding as a career can take so many different directions – it isn’t just about the physical burning of a rod or wire. There are so many other aspects to it. When you have that fundamental knowledge, it’s useful for all sorts of other applied careers. As long as you’re well rounded, open minded and have a solid skill base, the sky is the limit.”

Course details

In addition to offering a variety of areas of study for an associate degree, NCTA offers several certificates, such as its collegiate certificate for agricultural welding. The three-semester program covers everything that a budding welder will need to know when entering the workforce. On top of that, the welding classes only meet a couple times a week, allowing students to be employed while in studies or to complete other certificate programs or courses, such as a business option, if they aspire to one day launch their own welding enterprise.

The three-semester ag welding certification course at NCTA teaches students the fundamentals of welding to prepare them for range of a future careers.

In the first semester, Stehlik covers oxyacetylene cutting torch and fusion welding with and without a rod as well as a brief overview of brazing. Students also learn SMAW in the flat position and must satisfactorily accomplish a bead joint, butt joint, lap joint and a tee joint using three different electrodes or currents. Near the end of the semester, students move on to GMAW and must demonstrate the same four joints.

“We spend a little more time with an arc welder because if these young people were to get their own welder, they might start with a lower priced arc welder versus a wire welder, which might cost three or four times more,” Stehlik explains. “We want to give them those take-home skills to use right out of the gate.”

During the second semester, students learn vertical and horizontal welding with both rod and spray arc wire. Typically, Stehlik is supplying his student welders with 3/8-in. steel, but eventually he moves to units that focus on spool gun aluminum welding and TIG DC. Students will also weld round pipe joints.

“The second semester includes a small in-house class project, like welding a curtain rack or building metal stands,” he says. “These types of projects give them the basics on measuring, assembly, using a framing square and, perhaps most importantly, prepping their work before welding. Often times, weld prep can be the most time-consuming part of the process.”

Therefore, Stehlik is sure to include the basics of metal prep in his instruction and gives students the chance to use a bandsaw, cutoff saw, metal shear, grinder and drill press. Historically, students are quite excited to try out as much equipment as possible. In fact, to offer up a carrot for them to enroll in the second semester, Stehlik gives students a quick overview on using a plasma torch “because those are fun to run.”

Amanda Schmidt is one of several females that have completed NCTA ag welding program. She plans to use her welding education as a high school ag teacher. 

The third semester kicks off with a review of spool gun aluminum and TIG welding on steel, and then students are given a chance to weld a variety of different metals, such as cast iron, oil field pipe and rod, and galvanized steel, which are common metals found in agricultural settings.

Interspersed throughout the three semesters, Stehlik addresses safety issues and covers weld symbols, how to read a blueprint and useful weld anatomy terms. He even shares a blueprint of one of the buildings on campus that includes the weld symbols that students are currently learning about.

National certification

In the last eight weeks of the third semester, students practice welding plate material to prepare for the skills portion of the American Welding Society (AWS) certified welder (CW) exam, which includes a D1.1 steel endorsement. Students take the written portion of the AWS exam during the second semester. Last year, six NCTA students passed both portions of the exam and were awarded with the CW certification, an outside industry-based assessment of their skills.

NCTA student Trever Muellenberg watches certified welding instructor, Chuck Hatzenbuehler, measure a weld during a certification test administered by the AWS.

“I tell all of our students that if they’re going to weld for almost any company, they’re going to have to pass an entrance requirement or some type of welding test that’s designed for that employer’s specifications,” Stehlik says. “I try to emphasize that if their resume shows that they’ve achieved the AWS certification, it can get them to the top of the applicant pile.”

Overall, many of the course requirements at NCTA are perfect elements to add to a resume. In addition to the variety of welding fundamentals that are taught throughout the three semesters, students must also intern at a local business. Typically, students fulfill the internship requirement over the summer between their second and third semesters. Employers, of course, are happy to see practical experience on an applicant’s resume, but more importantly, the internship gives students a real-world perspective into what their future careers might look like.

Armed with a collegiate certificate, the AWS CW certificate, an internship and all of the practical knowledge and instruction delivered by Stehlik, students are well prepared to take the first step in their post-education lives. Stehlik, however, says that as a welder, their education will really never come to a close.

“We’re currently trying to do a little project repurposing some steam pipe for a campus feed bunk railing, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to weld it as there tends to be crystallization around the weld,” he says. “I’m learning along the way, too.”

Industry and beyond

After graduation, Stehlik says that his students take a variety of different career paths. A number of them transfer to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to become high school ag instructors while others find employment with the multitude of center pivot dealerships in the state, doing repairs if something breaks or fabricating components for the metal center pivot systems. Some go back home to the family farm or ranch and still others go into manufacturing in central Nebraska where there are many opportunities. One student is even looking at the possibility of pursuing a career in underwater welding.    

Reinke Mfg. is one of the many manufacturers throughout Nebraska that seeks out NCTA students after graduation. In addition to employing those graduates, Reinke is also a prominent partner for the school’s welding program. The company provides Stehlik with practice metal and the Certified Welding Inspector to administer the AWS exam who also supplies specs for the weld that students will be tested on.

“I want to recognize Reinke for their commitment to improving welding in rural Nebraska and Kansas,” Stehlik says. “They have been a real leader at the high school level and are integral in getting our college students certified. I was even certified at Reinke, which I think ultimately led to me teaching here at NCTA.”

NCTA is thankful for companies like Reinke as well as other manufacturers and benefactors in the area that offer their support. Some donate metal for students to practice on, others offer internships, but Stehlik is especially anxious to inspire others to donate time, money or assist with other resources to enable his future vision for NCTA’s welding program.

“My goal is to add a fourth semester to the course,” he says. “If that were possible, I would want to include a D1.2 aluminum certification, metal CNC work, perhaps a plasma cutting table and especially some robotic welding for programming, service, maintenance and quality control skills. The robotic welding really gets me excited because those skills are so transferrable, but it also opens up opportunities for handicapped individuals to be able to land a career in welding. Welding can be such a great career path – for anyone who applies themselves.”

Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture

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