Welding labs at Elgin and Hampshire high schools now are certified testing facilities -- the first in the Midwest and among only three high schools in the country to be accredited.
Both programs are sanctioned by the American Welding Society, allowing students and community members to obtain professional certification meeting industry standards. Courses will be taught by AWS-certified instructors at the high schools.
"There is a huge demand for manufacturing grade, entry-level welders in this area," said Nick Moran, certified welding instructor at Elgin High and technical specialist for Kane County. He will train teachers at both high schools this summer to become certified welding instructors.
"We are kind of ideally poised to serve the industry," he added.
Moran said Elgin is the hub of a "golden corridor" of manufacturing industries producing metals, plastics, pharmaceuticals and food.
Jobs for welders, solderers, cutters and brazers are in high demand and expected to grow 6 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Elgin High houses welding courses that will be available to students from all five U-46 high schools and neighboring districts starting this fall as part of the Regional Career Pathways initiative.
Through the partnership, students from U-46, Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, Burlington-Central Unit District 301 and St. Charles Unit District 303 can participate in career and technical education programs not offered at their high schools.
Work to renovate Elgin High's welding lab, which had not been updated in about 20 years, was completed in February. It has 14 new welding booths where students train on industrial-quality equipment to stay current with the latest welding and cutting technology. Upgrades were funded through state and federal funds -- $203,000 for equipment, $66,000 for supplies and $85,000 for construction.
Hampshire High has housed District 300's welding technology career pathway program for 10 years in partnership with Elgin Community College, allowing students to earn college credit. The district had to make a few safety upgrades, such as installing kill switches and a larger ventilation system, to comply with AWS requirements.
The accreditation process, which began last April, culminated with an on-site evaluation by AWS auditors in February. They examined the labs' structure, resources, test process and material storage compared to industry standards, officials said.
"We are real excited about it," said Vincent Serritella, Hampshire High industrial technology teacher. "It is going to be a good opportunity for students and welders in the community, as well."
This fall, students enrolled in the welding program will take three courses based on AWS curriculum -- Fundamentals of Welding, Welding Technology I and Welding Technology II. Classes will run five days a week all year. After completing the courses, students can test and earn AWS certification.
Community members could pay a nominal fee for testing at these facilities, but that cost has not been determined. For students, the fee will be part of the program cost, officials said.