WHEELING - Robert Howard believes the welding classes at Ironworkers Local 549 are top notch and that he should have no trouble getting a job upon finishing his training.
With local natural gas processing companies such as Caiman Energy, Dominion Resources and MarkWest Liberty continuing to expand their operations, the demand for pipeline welders throughout the Upper Ohio Valley seems destined to increase.
Howard, a student at the Ironworkers training center at 2350 Main St. in Wheeling, believes he and fellow trainees will be well-qualified to work for these companies.
"A lot of guys couldn't weld when they started," Howard said Thursday during an open house and demonstration at the Wheeling center. "If you go through this training, it looks really good on a resume."
Keith Hughes, business manager at the union center, said the job opportunities presented by the natural gas drilling boom are almost endless.
"This industry is nothing that we have not done before. If there are specifications that a company needs us to meet, we can adjust to meet those specifications," he said.
Hughes said local ironworkers, including graduates of the training program, have been hired to work for Caiman and MarkWest in Marshall County.
Caiman now operates the processing plant along U.S. Route 250 near Cameron - and is building another plant along the Ohio River at the former Olin Chemical site. MarkWest operates the processing plant at Majorsville in the eastern part of the county near the Pennsylvania border.
"At first, Caiman did not understand what we did here," said Hughes. "We convinced them to give us a chance, and now we have about 20 people doing work on their sites right now."
Casey Nikoloric, spokeswoman for Caiman, later said the Dallas-based company is "fully committed to local hiring."
"We are very pleased to bring jobs to West Virginia," she said.
However, Hughes and local ironworkers remain at odds with Dominion, as that company continues to build a $500 million processing plant along the Ohio River on a 70-acre site between American Electric Power's Kammer-Mitchell Plant and the PPG Industries plant. Hughes and other union workers maintain that Dominion is not giving them an opportunity to build the plant.
"All we ask for is a chance," he said. "If you hire us, and we screw something up, we'll walk away and never bother you again."
According to Bob Orndorff, Dominion's managing director of state and local government affairs, the company awarded Texas-based Chicago Bridge & Iron the contract to build the Marshall County plant, "predicated on their technical expertise and experience in building facilities like Natrium as an engineering, procurement and construction contractor."
Dominion spokesman Chuck Penn said 42 of the 62 people working at the Natrium site this week are local workers.
Despite the squabbles with Dominion, Hughes and Ironworkers Apprenticeship Coordinator Bryan "Carp" Dierkes believe the future is bright for those training at their facility.
"There is no experience necessary to start out," Hughes said, noting trainees can get paid for their training, rather than having to pay for training.
He said beginners earn about $17 per hour, while those with more experience advance to about $26 per hour.