RICHLAND -- You don't need to be a rocket scientist to take part in cutting-edge research, and you don't need a Ph.D. to make a good living, as long as you learn a trade.
That was the message for 24 students from the Tri-Tech Skills Center who visited Richland-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's biggest fabrication shop Friday. The students met crafts workers such as welders, pipefitters, machinists and electricians during PNNL's third annual Craft Career Day.
Tri-Tech is a regional skills center that accepts high school students from across the Mid-Columbia and gets them started on careers in cosmetology, welding, broadcasting and 17 other fields.
About 850 students typically spend half of each day at their original high school and the rest at Tri-Tech, said Lisa McKinney, the school's pre-apprentice program manager.
And on Friday, one group of Tri-Tech students spent most of the day listening to people who get to apply their blue-collar skills to some pretty nifty projects.
Randy LaMasters is a machinist who operates a high-tech cutting device called an electric discharge machine. He took machine technology at Columbia Basin College in Pasco more than 30 years ago.
What has kept him in his career for that long?
"The pay," he dryly said.
The salaries for craftsmen and women at the shop range from $45,000 to more than $70,000, said Ken Renteria, the labor relations manager.
But LaMasters quickly made clear that it's not just the size of the paycheck that's kept him at his machine.
"I've never been unemployed as a machinist," he said. "And my job is constantly changing. I'm still learning today."
That is one benefit to working for an outfit run by scientists.
"Researchers come in with an idea but aren't sure how to get there," LaMasters said. "We sit down with them and brainstorm."
The electricians said they, too, work in the labs at times. As they explained their complex daily tasks, the students voiced concerns -- did the electricians have to know a lot of math?
"Well -- geometry, simple trigonometry and a little algebra," said Rey Elizondo. "But if we can do it, anybody can."
Employers everywhere hope that more kids not only work on their math chops, but also get interested in the trades. A shortage of skilled labor is coming, several at the shop said.
"It's a national problem," Renteria said. "Generations aren't following generations. Most kids are getting into more glamorous things."
Things more glamorous than welding, for example.
"There's a lack of welders," said Prentice Landa, a grizzled pipefitter and welder at the PNNL shop. "There are a lot of people (in our local union) who're my age and getting ready to retire."
The recession has taken a toll here too, but "two or three years ago, (the union) couldn't fill all the jobs," he said. "It's going to be a lot worse in a few years."
It became apparent just how much these tradesmen want kids to join their ranks when one of the students said she's almost ready to become a welder.
Desiree Beasley is in her second year of Tri-Tech's welding program.
She already has completed a couple of certificates and will be ready to start her apprenticeship this summer.
"I like that it's hands-on and that it's a skill I can use in life," she said.
Several of the pipefitters and welders crowded around her. The teenager asked them about complicated beads and how they had managed with the complex welding jobs laid out on a workbench.
Seeing the girl's genuine appreciation for the craft, the men encouraged her.
"You know where the union hall is?" asked Mario Sanchez, a pipefitter. "When you get your diploma, you do down there and you apply."
Beasley nodded, and everybody smiled.
* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org