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Tishomingo County draws bead on welder shortage

iuka — It’s a good time to be a welder in the northeastern corner of Mississippi. And it’s likely to get even better.

Gary Matthews, executive director of Tishomingo County Development Foundation and Tishomingo County Economic Development Authority, says that if 300 welders descended on the county right now, there are positions available for them.

“We have about 700 employed now in six different companies,” says Matthews. Those half-dozen fabrication firms in the county construct dump-bodies for trucks, environmental equipment and other products.

“This shortage seems to be a fairly recent development.”

A potential exacerbation of the situation is the recent announcement and planned 2009 opening of the National Alabama Corporation’s $350-million railroad car plant in Barton, Ala., a 20-minute drive from Iuka. That operation will employ 1,800, with a substantial number of them expected to be welders.

Forrest Wright, executive director of Shoals Economic Development, figures employees will be pulled from Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi since the Barton area is very rural, with only a small population from which to draw a workforce. Wright says the plant will bring in raw steel and make every piece of its railroad cars onsite.

Tishomingo County fabricators are scrambling to meet the potential railroad-car hit before it happens.

“Once we hit our peak sales season from May to August of 2008, we will be 20-30 welders short,” says Monty Geter, general manager of Truck Bodies & Equipment International Inc. (TBEI), located near the Town of Tishomingo, in the southern part of Tishomingo County.

The Bloomington, Minn.-based privately-held company operates eight plants across the United States. The Tishomingo location employs 135 and builds primarily dump bodies for class three-five (small to medium) trucks and some for class eight (large) trucks.

Of the 135 workers, Geter says 80 or so are welders. Geter, who took over management of the plant in early September, says TBEI is starting its own welder training program. “We have had to do this in anticipation,” says Geter.

Those 80 welders — and most of the other employees, too — are just winding down a busy four- to five-month, peak season when they worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Geter reports there was “a lot of overtime” made during that period.

Matthews says the Tishomingo Vocational-Technical Center dropped its welder training program four years ago “because there were no jobs.” That facility is cranking its training back up.

“I could put 10 more welders on right now,” says Mark Jones, manager of Dynasteel Inc. The Memphis-based company makes environmental equipment for concrete, power-generating and other plants.

Of the 90 workers at the Tishomingo location, 35-40 are welders, who generally start at approximately $11 an hour, but can eventually earn $14-$15 per hour or even more. Jones says Dynasteel has also initiated its own training program.

“We try to recruit from within. Employees come in as helpers and we offer them the training,” says Jones. So far, in the first class, six of eight students have passed the welding certification test. The program is being run with the assistance of Northeast Mississippi Community College.

Jones’ need for certified welders will compound in February or March of next year, when a 42,000-square-foot expansion to his plant at the Tri-State Commerce Park on the old Yellow Creek site is completed.

Matthews says at least one other Tishomingo County manufacturer, New River Homes in Burnsville, will need more welders as it completes a production-line change, adding even more to the acute 300 now needed.

The builder of manufactured homes will begin making its own steel frames, which it has heretofore contracted out to an Alabama fabricator. Matthews says transportation costs led to the change.
“We’ve got to learn how to survive,” says Geter.

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