Building a Future

Breckenridge is a small Colorado town with mountain appeal, six ski areas and plenty of all-season recreation. People come as…

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Breckenridge is a small Colorado town with mountain appeal, six ski areas and plenty of all-season recreation. People come as visitors, fall in love and move here. Unfortunately, new residential construction consumes an unfair share of the area’s limited workers, resulting in a mounting shortage of skilled tradespeople. When locals need a plumber or electrician, or when metal fabricators, contractors or mining companies need a welder, there are none to be found.

“When our principal engaged with the community, he would hear over and over about the lack of people in the skilled trades and knew we needed to do something about it,” says Oakley Van Oss, a welding and construction technology teacher and Spanish language teacher at Summit High School in Breckenridge. “The motivation for starting a welding program and increasing our continuing technical education programs came from our community.”

The school has about 1,500 students drawn from half a dozen towns. In response to community demand, Van Oss created bilingual Welding 1 and Welding 2 classes from the ground up. Welding 1 covers safety, the basics of MIG, metal cutting, equipment maintenance, and individual and group projects. Welding 2 covers stick welding, quality control, oxyfuel cutting, and individual and group projects.

The ESAB Rebel EMP 205ic AC/DC welder enables instructor Oakley Van Oss to teach students any welding process.

Finding partners

Starting a welding program requires community engagement, and that includes reaching out to find partners like local welding distributors, non-profit and educational organizations, and local industry.

“Climax Molybdenum Co., a massive mill and mine up the road from us, has donated generously and so has The Summit Foundation, a local non-profit,” Van Oss says. “My advice to other schools starting out is that after covering their local bases, reach out to every tool provider they can.”

As part of its Future Fabricators program, ESAB supported Summit High School by donating a Rebel EMP 205ic AC/DC all-process welder (MIG, flux cored, stick, DC TIG, pulsed DC TIG and AC TIG for aluminum), a Rogue EM 190 Pro MIG/flux-cored welder, five Savage A40 auto-darkening welding helmets, and plasma and oxyfuel cutting equipment.

The Rebel 205 is good for technical education programs because its multi-process output enables equipping a welding station with one machine to teach any process. The Rebel’s sMIG mode and the Rogue’s Synergic mode enable “one knob control,” which help students master the mechanics of MIG welding. Both units offer the types of process controls found in industry, so students can train more realistically.

“Welding and other technical skills provide the foundation for fulfilling, financially rewarding careers,” says Eleanor Lukens, ESAB president of the Americas. “They also teach teamwork, safety and discipline as well as reading and math skills. Our donation will help make welding classes at Summit High School accessible to more students.”

ESAB’s Future Fabricators program provides tools, equipment, scholarships, training and educational materials to technical and trade education programs from high schools to four-year welding engineering programs across America. By showcasing schools, teachers and students through contests, giveaways, nominating a teacher, student or school for recognition, and inspiring stories, ESAB is helping to create a strong foundation of skilled tradespeople for generations.

“For ESAB to come into a school like ours gives us a big leg up,” Van Oss says. “The donation enables our students to train on professional equipment. A lot of people think that high school programs are fully funded and that we don’t need help. I didn’t find that to be the case. When I started this program, I felt like I was on an island. I didn’t know where to turn. Now I know how to find community and corporate partners.”

The ESAB Rogue EM 190 PRO welder enables Summit High School students to learn MIG and flux-cored welding.

Hooked on welding

Van Oss became hooked on Spanish after studying in Costa Rica and earning a degree in Spanish and international affairs. A 24-year public education veteran, Van Oss taught Spanish for the first two-thirds of his career. However, he has always been a “hands-on” guy. His dad and stepdad are carpenters. He did general contractor work on weekends and summers as a side hustle, which included building his own house.

When the principal wanted to start a welding program, Van Oss agreed. While he hadn’t welded before, he knew his construction and teaching experience would bring a lot to a welding program. To start the process, he met with the school’s facilities director. The initial plan called for the director to provide the welding experience, but that changed after Van Oss got under the hood.

“We ran some beads, and it changed my life,” he says. “It absolutely blew my doors off. I got hungry really fast.”

So hungry that Van Oss quickly obtained his 1G GMAW certification at Eastern Wyoming College. He spent hours welding, watching welding and studying with local welders. His certification, welding time and building experience allowed Van Oss to move forward with certifying the program through the Colorado Department of Education (which enables obtaining Perkins grants, a source of federal continuing technical education funds).

“We started with 15 kids, one welder, two grinders, one cutoff saw and we all shared a room, but interest was strong right away,” Van Oss says. “The following year, we had 40 kids. The year after that we had two sections that ran both semesters.”

Thanks in part to the Rebel EMP 205ic AC/DC welder featured in this video, Summit High School’s welding program appeals to students that want to learn a variety of welding processes.

Van Oss was still teaching Spanish, civics and an economics class. The administration recognized the success of the program, however, and shifted his class load to one dual language class, plus Welding 1 and Welding II.

“Our program had quadrupled to 60 students,” he says. “We needed more machines, tools, PPE and more of everything.”

Affirming the demand for the class, the school district issued a bond and passed a property value levy in 2019. With the funds, the school converted an art room to a welding shop with eight booths, electrical and ventilation systems specifically for welding, and a large compressor. Success begat success, and three years ago, Van Oss became a full-time technical education teacher, splitting his time between welding and construction technology.

In 2023, the school connected with Careers in Construction Colorado (CICC), which is a state-wide push to link local tradespeople with schools. As part of CICC, Van Oss brings in trade school reps, local welders, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, project managers and concrete workers to create a positive narrative of skilled trade careers.

“We’re probably sending 10 kids a year to trade schools and 30 kids out of a graduating class are going directly into the trades,” he says.

A bilingual community

Previously a Spanish teacher, Van Oss offers the welding class as a dual language credit, which means that outside of safety instructions, students can opt to take the entire course in Spanish. With 40 percent of the community being Hispanic (and many speaking Spanish since birth), he can also reach students who might otherwise struggle to learn because of a language barrier.

Students have already recognized the benefits of dual language competence in employment.

“One student, Tanner, who welds at his friend’s dad’s excavation company, is kind of a mentor because he’s bilingual,” Van Oss says. “He’s working with the guys who speak nothing but Spanish and he can translate. The work is getting done faster and better because there is communication now. This has given him a sense of importance in the trades, and knowing Spanish is a major component.”

Van Oss has seen support from the Hispanic parents, as well, including a recent visit with a dad who is a local fabricator. Before joining the welding program, his son had only been interested in video games.

“My student brought his dad into our shop and showed him around,” Van Oss says. “The son was super proud that he was doing something that his dad does. The dad was like, ‘Oh my God, maybe there is a chance my son will be a fabricator like his old man.’”

For those with questions about the EM 190 Pro welder, this video has answers.

Support from the parents also spills into the community, such as with the football team and the booster club.

“We have worked with them to repair broken parts around the stadium, and we’ve done projects to fix things in the school,” Van Oss says. “We’re also welding some cool welcome signs for kids new to the district, many of whom are newcomers to the country. When we go out into the community, there’s never a meeting where I don’t know someone’s kid or grandkid.”

For all his efforts, Van Oss was recently voted Outstanding Educator of the Year in Summit County, a source of pride for him, but also for the students and the community.

“Being a part of this program, even though it’s a small community, is incredible,” Van Oss concludes. “It’s such a good thing for these kids and their parents to know they’re part of building this community, whether by fixing things at the school or being vocal advocates for the program. It’s about taking pride in where you live and giving back when you can. I love it.”

ESAB

Summit High School

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