Jesus Fonseca of Red Bank used to be a commercial painter. Doug Brain of Tinton Falls owned a body shop for 26 years. Henry Berkebile, of Manchester, was in construction.
As of February, however, all three were unemployed. And, like many in their situation, they were looking for a new start.
The trio, like 18 others from across Monmouth and Ocean counties, decided to enroll in a unique welding training program offered jointly this semester by Brookdale and Ocean County College. The program, funded by federal and state grants, was cost-free and open to unemployed individuals with a high school or equivalency degree.
From Feb. 7 to March 30, the students spent 166 hours at Brookdale and the Ocean County Vocational Technical School in Toms River learning the ins and outs of professional welding. From arc welding, welding fabrication and blueprint reading to resume writing and job search skills, the students honed the practical and technical skills necessary to become certified welders upon graduation.
By the time of the class’s commencement ceremony, held on April 5 at Brookdale, four of the 21 students had already been hired by area employers. Berkebile, a young husband and father of two, was one of them.
“It feels great,” said Berkebile, who lost his former construction job when the company went bankrupt. “I began working for Brick Recycling a few days ago. I really enjoy the job and the atmosphere. It works for me.”
Berkebile and his 20 fellow graduates were recognized by a host of college and local officials during the April 5 commencement ceremony for completing the program and moving one step closer to a rewarding career.
On hand were Monmouth County Freeholder John Curley; Brookdale President Dr. Maureen Murphy; Brookdale business training manager James McCarthy; Brookdale Associate Vice President of Continuing and Professional Studies Marie Lucier-Woodruff; OCC Assistant Vice President of Continuing Education, Workforce Development and Community Relations Patricia Fenn; and OCC Manager of Business Engagement Michael Forcella.
“There are so many folks in our counties, in our state and throughout the country who are underemployed,” said Curley.
“They are hardworking people with families who give all that they have… You folks are moving onward and upward. You are bettering yourselves, you’re bettering your families, you’re bettering society, you are making a better life for everyone involved. All of us in this room today are so proud of your efforts.”
The graduating class, ranging in age from early 20’s to mid-60’s, hailed from towns including Middletown, Red Bank, Howell, Tinton Falls, Manalapan, Long Branch, Belmar, Point Pleasant, Oakhurst, Manchester, Barnegat, Little Egg Harbor, Bayville and Perth Amboy.
According to McCarthy, the graduates will help address a growing skills gap in New Jersey and across the nation, as qualified welders continue to age out of the workforce.
“The average welder is between 50 and 55 years old, and the average welding instructor is a bit older than that,” McCarthy said. “So this program was designed for contemporary students who wanted to develop career skills quickly and begin supporting their families sooner than later. We already have four students employed and the rest are in the process of interviewing or submitting resumes. We believe we will have 100 percent employment very shortly.”
Brain, who had previous welding experience and is now attempting to restart his career at the age of 66, said opportunities abound for young, qualified welders in today’s workforce.
“There’s been a drop-off in younger people who are interested in doing this kind of work. But the demand for the work isn’t going away,” said Brain, who had received two job offers from employers in Monmouth County prior to the graduation ceremony. “There’s way more of a demand for this kind of work than even when I was in school. It’s unbelievable. So I definitely think there should be more hands-on workers.”
Fonseca, in his 20’s, said he was looking forward to leaving painting behind and becoming a professional welder.
“It’s a career. It could be a lifelong job and you can make a good living if you learn the right way to do things,” said Fonseca, who had previously worked in his father’s auto shop. “There are tons of opportunities out there.”
The training program, funded by a national emergency grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, is the second such program co-hosted by Brookdale and Ocean County College. Brookdale also hosted a similar welding program in Monmouth County in 2015.
To learn more about Brookdale’s career training programs click here.