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'A few hours with us and you'll be welding'
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Michael Johnson and Mark Helderman teach welding at Black Hawk College's welding lab in Moline. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Helderman are both former John Deere welders and the course they give is Deere-approved.
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Sparks fly as Mark Helderman welds metals at Black Hawk College's welding lab in Moline.
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Practice pieces of metal are use to teach the proper technique for making strong welds.
MOLINE -- Mark Helderman and Michael Johnson are confident guys.

Mr. Johnson, who goes by "Red," and Mr. Helderman teach welding at Black Hawk College's Business Training Center. They know that if their students put in the time and effort they can learn to weld, even if they've never done it before.

"A few hours with us and you'll be welding," Mr. Helderman said.

Students who want to learn to weld would be hard-pressed to find two more qualified teachers. Mr. Helderman retired from Deere & Co. three years ago after spending 30 years there as a welder. Mr. Johnson is also a Deere retiree, having left the company two years ago after a 31-year career as a welder.

"We both wore many hats over there," Mr. Helderman said.

The two men say that people who take their class will be qualified for almost any welding job available in the Quad-Cities. Though their welding experience came at Deere, they say they also show students techniques they will need to work at other companies.

Though they're both fairly easygoing, the instructors work their students hard so that when they finish the 120-hour class they are able to get jobs.

"We try to make sure we don't set them up for failure," Mr. Johnson said. "We tell them, 'You're going to learn a lot.' "

Mr. Helderman agreed.

"We're probably covering a year-and-a-half's worth of welding in 120 hours," he said.

To make sure their students don't fail, Mr. Helderman and Mr. Johnson teach them what they need to know to function in a workplace, in addition to welding. One of the things they stress is simply showing up. They require students to have 95 percent attendance, which means they must be in class for 114 of the 120 hours to pass.

"You have to be in attendance to pass the class," Mr. Johnson said. "If you can't make it here, you can't make it on a job."

Mr. Heldeman agreed, saying that some students need to be taught that they can't slack off once they have a job.

"The biggest problem these companies have is people not coming to work," he said. "They don't understand that if you're not there, it's a hole."

Mr. Johnson said that, like many kids, he once thought he would play baseball when he grew up. His teaching partner, on the other hand, had slightly less childlike aspirations.

"When I was 8 years old, there used to be a hardware store on the Avenue (of the Cities)," said Mr. Helderman, who is now 52. "I was just intrigued by that at a young age."

So intrigued was the 8-year-old Mark Helderman that he went to the owner of the hardware store and asked if he could work there doing odd jobs. The owner told him he could, but with one caveat: he had to get permission from his mother.

"My mom told me I didn't need to start working," he said.

Mr. Johnson said he asked Black Hawk about teaching a welding class while he was still employed at Deere because he saw that a lot of people who took Deere's welding test did not seem to know what they were doing.

"I had a big concern that the guys who were taking the test weren't getting trained properly," he said.

Mr. Johnson said part of the reason his students are so successful is because they have to pay for the class.

"People who pay money learn better," he said.

Mr. Helderman agreed and added that he and Mr. Johnson believe that their tag-team approach to teaching also helps.

"We alternate days teaching," he said, adding that between the two of them, "you have over 60 years of experience."

Mr. Helderman said that while he and Mr. Johnson don't do things the same way, it's beneficial for students to learn different techniques in order to find one that suits them.

"We have no conflicts between us as far as our communication goes," he said. "We both learned the same way."

Mr. Helderman said that it takes some students longer than others to learn how to weld and that having two instructors who sometimes teach different techniques to accomplish the same task makes it that much more likely they'll find one that works.

"Everyone has their own way that they weld," he said. "It's just finding out what I have to do to get the light bulb to come on in your head."

Mr. Johnson said it's easier to teach people with no knowledge of welding than it is to teach people who have learned to weld elsewhere.

"They don't have bad habits," he said.

Mr. Helderman agreed and said those with no welding experience tend to get very excited when they try it for the first time.

"When they come in here and they lay down that first weld, it's like a kid at Christmas," he said.

The men said that besides teaching welding techniques, they try to teach their students to deal with problems they might run into on the job. On one day of class, Mr. Johnson will make it so that each machine will fail in some way -- and then make the students fix them.

"It's to teach them how to diagnose a problem," Mr. Helderman said. "You just have to work your way back into the machine."

Mr. Helderman and Mr. Johnson are confident that people who pass their class won't have trouble finding work.

"Welding is a career (in which) they're looking for people," Mr. Helderman said. "The Quad-Cities area needs welders so bad."

Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Oct. 21, the 294th day of 2014. There are 71 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The weather is discouraging for our great Democratic rally tomorrow, but never mind that. Let our Rock Island people show they can make a big procession themselves, rain or shine.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Apparatus arrived for drilling an artesian well on the premises of George Warner's Atlantic Brewery.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The German army continued its attacks on the allies line near the Belgian coast.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The farm home of Mr. and Mrs. Gus Zachert northwest of Buffalo Prairie, burned to the ground.
1964 -- 50 years ago: WVIK-FM, noncommercial educational radio station at Augustana College, will return to the air tomorrow. The station operates at a power of 10 watts at 90.9 megacycles on the frequency modulation band. The station is operated with a staff of 92 students.
1989 -- 25 years ago: An avenue of lights, 13 Christmas trees strung with more than 44,000 sparkling lights, will expand the Festival of Trees beyond the walls of RiverCenter in downtown Davenport in mid-November.

(More History)