Dearing Compressor Works with Trade Schools to Solve Problem

Dearing Compressor and Pump Co. faced a big problem as it planned a major expansion at the company’s Youngstown plant: a shortage of skilled tradesmen to meet the rapidly growing demand for its products. The company had quickly grown from employing a staff of 65 in 2006 to 165 at the end of 2010 when its new 189,000-square-foot assembly building opened.

During that five-year growth spurt, most of Dearing’s new hires were unemployed because of the sagging economy. But as the oil and gas industry began to boom locally with exploration of the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, Dearing once again faced the problem as it sought to further expand its staff.

“For over a decade, we’ve been trying to fill skilled-trades jobs to keep with the demands of our industry and our expanding business,” says company Vice President Becky Dearing Wall. “Ten years later, there are still more manufacturing jobs than there are people to fill them.”

Dearing, in operation since 1945, produces compressor packages used to move and process natural gas. The company also distributes air compressors used in manufacturing, steel mills, power plants and other industries.

In 2010, with its growth impeded by the shortage of qualified employees, especially welders, Dearing took a proactive approach to solve what had become a chronic problem. The company decided to create its own pool of skilled tradesmen by enlisting the area’s technical and vocational schools as its partners.

Wall and Dearing’s human resources staff contacted the Columbiana County Career & Technical Center, the New Castle School of Trades and other technical schools.

Mike Boyle, industrial technology coordinator at CCCTC, says he was only too happy to answer the call. For years, he watched quality vocational programs go wanting for lack of students.

“Our children are programmed in high school that a higher education is a four-year degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s or a doctorate,” Boyle laments.

Joining forces with Dearing, Wall picks up the story, “The trade schools got on board and geared their programs up and now they’re bringing qualified people into the workforce.”

By 2015, Dearing succeeded in increasing its workforce to 240, thanks in large part to training programs like the one Boyle operates at CCCTC, she says.

The trade school’s one-year welding program is fully accredited and teaches all facets of the craft.

“We turn them out into the field as entry level welders,” Boyle says of his graduates, “hoping that an employer takes them in and does more of the training.

“Dearing is unique in the way they work with us,” he emphasizes.

But teaching students welding is just one of Boyle’s tasks, he says. He serves as a role model and even as a father figure for many students.

Without opportunities like those provided by CCCTC and other trade school training programs, young people who don’t go to college are often funneled into the fast food industry or other low wage jobs, Wall says.

Boyle’s job also includes teaching the soft skills necessary to be a successful employee. Punctuality, dependability, leading a drug-free life and working well with others are crucial characteristics of a successful employee, he tells students. In particular, Dearing and other employers working in manufacturing and the oil and gas industry insist that employees lead a drug-free life.

“I talk to them on a regular basis,” Boyle says, “What’s it like to be an employee? What are employers looking for? I quiz them.”

Boyle’s guidance is crucial for employers such as Dearing. “The soft skills are the skills they need to survive in the workplace,” Wall says.

At the same time, it’s necessary to introduce young people to a modern manufacturing world where they might have little familiarity. Many students start with misconceptions about what welding is like in a facility such as Dearing Compressor.

“We open our doors to these kids,” Wall says. “The schools bring in field trips and we show them what modern-day manufacturing is so that we get rid of those old stereotypes that it’s dirty and loud.”

The students quickly learn that skilled tradesmen, and particularly welders, are in great demand and many respond favorably to knowing good careers await them. The American Welding Society estimates there are more than 500,000 welders working in the United States and the average age of this workforce is 54. This year, the trade group says that 50,000 welders will leave the industry while only 25,000 students will begin their welding education.

No one needs to tell Boyle or his students about the huge demand. “Our program has grown to exceed its limits,” he says. “We’ve actually had to cap enrollment.” Graduates can expect to find employment every semester, he adds.

Randy Moorefield is a CCCTC student already working at Dearing Compressor as a pipefitter and welder. His shift runs from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. He then attends classes from 4 to 10 p.m. With 10 years of experience as a pipefitter in the oil and gas industry, Moorefield is adding welding to his skill set. He’s completed an endorsement in structural welding and is working toward an endorsement in pipe welding.

At 42, CCCTC and Dearing are providing Moorefield a chance to reinvent his career.

“Right now I’m learning pipe-to-pipe [welding],” Moorefield says. “So I get to see how everything progresses here in the shop, which also helps me become a better fitter and eventually a better welder.”

For those who enjoy working with their hands, Moorefield recommends giving the manufacturing industry a look. “Welding is a pretty good fit for those who are more mechanically inclined,” he adds.

John Muller, a pipefitter and welder at Dearing, began welding with his father and his grandfather at age 7. He heard about opportunities to learn pipe-to-pipe welding at New Castle School of Trades from local TV newscasts.

The challenges of the trade have pushed Muller to learn more, he says. “You have different angles, and different size pipe and different lengths of pipe that you have to go off of and try your best to do what would work,” he says.

Asked what he hopes to be doing in 10 years, he immediately replies, “Welding pipe.”

Muller has gained experience and also found a home at Dearing Compressor. “I know welding is in high demand, and I know pipe-lining is in high demand,” he says. “If you don’t want to travel for work, you have to find a place that does it. And I’ve found it.”

Dave Swantek, pipe crew leader, and Jim Frease, welding crew leader, are the point men at Dearing for training new hires from the local trade schools. The company understands that students will have basic skills but will need guidance from supervisors and on-the-job training, they say.

“The school is basically teaching them to qualify to the procedure we work to,” Frease says. “And once they come here, we give them a couple of weeks, let them practice and then we qualify them to the procedure they’re going to work to.”

Frease emphasizes the importance of life skills to the younger hires. Everything from co-worker relations to forklift and crane operation are included in the training.

While it often takes longer to acclimate younger students from the trade schools, the effort can pay off, Swantek says. “I have two of them who are fantastic,” he says. “They started out at Columbiana [County Career & Technical Center]. They turned out to be two of the best welders we’ve had here.”

The pipe welders consistently pass their X-ray tests, which are used to look for subsurface flaws in welds. Hydrostatic testing and magnetic particle inspection are some of the other tests welds must pass.

There are “too many welds to count” in many of Dearing’s large compressors, according to Swantek. “There’s at least 5,000 man-hours to build one of these jobs,” Frease adds.

The Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, formed in 2011 not long after Dearing began working with the vocational schools, is similarly working with trade schools to address workforce shortages.

Still, attracting and retaining talent is a “problem that’s never fully solved,” Wall says. Experienced welders and journeymen have numerous opportunities to advance in the industry.

Building relationships with the trade schools is the key to Dearing’s success, affirms human resources manager Bob Christoff. “It’s a mutually beneficial partnership that we have with these schools,” he says.

Christoff considers the relationship between Dearing and its employees a partnership as well. Wages and benefits are essential, he says, but career opportunities and stability are also important, especially for skilled employees who have plenty of job options.

“It goes in large part to your company’s culture,” Christoff says. “If you come to Dearing, typically, you know what your schedule will be. You can build your family around it. You’ve got a pretty predictable situation you can work with, and you know that you have a chance to grow and learn.”

For companies in any industry facing workforce shortages, Wall advises them to be proactive and to “run their business in such a way that encourages long-term relationships. Do what you have to do to build your team. Then take care of your team.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.