DODGE CENTER — For some time now, McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing has struggled to find enough welders to build its refuse collection trucks and cement mixer trucks.

The challenge isn't unique to McNeilus, but the Dodge Center manufacturer now feels it has hit upon a solution. 

In the last year, the company has produced 55 trained welders, thanks to an in-house training program created in partnership between McNeilus, higher education and the state. Six more are waiting in the wings to begin training next week.

"We can take people who've never welded before, and after four weeks, they can," Chad Kleist, a senior human resource manager for McNeilus, said.

Since October, McNeilus has been running rotating four-week training programs at its Dodge Center facility made up of six to 10 students each. Trainees are both McNeilus employees looking to "upscale" their jobs and external candidates looking to get a foot in the door.

Kleist said the program is unique in that weld trainees are considered McNeilus employees from the first day of training. They make 95 percent of a welder's base rate, which is $17 dollars an hour.

Some employers would hesitate to pay trainees for four weeks of training "where they don't even touch product." But McNeilus sees the expenditure as a long-term investment.

Even if a trainee decides that welding is not for him or her — and some people do — they often return to their old jobs better employees for understanding other facets of McNeilus' production process. 

The program is taught by instructors from Riverland Communnity College and supported by $150,000 in state funding.

On Tuesday, McNeilus hosted a celebration attended by employees, state and education officials and elected leaders to mark the program's successes as well as the state's decision to invest another $150,000 into the program.

Welders are key to McNeilus' success. Of the 900 production employees at the Dodge Center facility, 220 of them are welders, officials say.  

"If you look around, the fight for talent is everywhere," said Brad Nelson, president of McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing. "Everybody is looking for quality individuals. We are, too." 

Officials say the program has the potential to lift workers into the middle class, because it can lead to promotions and better pay.

JoJo Wright started in assembly at McNeilus before entering the welding program. 

Since gradating from the program, Wright has been promoted to supervisor and seen his economic prospects brighten considerably.

The 46-year-old Rochester resident declines to say how much he makes, but his laughter conveys a level of satisfaction. The father of three, Wright is now for the first time in his life considering buying a house.

When he was a younger, Wright had considered a career in welding beyond his ability. But the step-by-step nature of the program built a confidence in him. 

"If you give a man a fish, you feed him for today. But if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. That's what the program has meant to me," Wright said. 

Kleist said the scarcity of welders is partly a workforce challenge. The demand for workers simply outpaces the supply. The training program isn't a panacea. McNeilus still needs more welders. Kleist said he could hire 20 to 30 welders "right now."

The other challenge in filling openings for welding is perceptual.   

"I would say there's a few perceptions. It's dirty. It doesn't pay well, and it's not stable. All those are false," Kleist said. 

The welder program is helping change those perceptions, he said.

"It's not just here. It's not just Southeast Minnesota. We're bringing them from everywhere to go through this program, because they want to be part of something special," Kleist said.  

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