When Petoskey twin brothers Paul and Mike Tietjen enrolled in the welding class offered at Pellston High School several years ago, they knew it could open the door to a well-paying career in the skilled trades.
They both knew they weren’t interested in attending college after graduating high school or applying for a 9-to-5 desk job. The welding program sparked an idea that led to the start of what will surely be a long and fulfilling career for the brothers.
“We both knew we weren’t going to have office jobs,” said Paul. “And I’m not the type to sit still for very long. I like to be doing something different throughout the day. I’m naturally pretty fidgety, and welding gives you something to do with your hands.”
The brothers, now 21, recently landed two open positions working on a huge new construction project for a fruit processing plant in Harrisonburg, VA, after working hard along a path to earning their welding skills and necessary certifications.
Where they started
The Tietjen brothers are Petoskey natives who graduated from Concord Academy in Petoskey, a charter school academy, in 2019. Paul enrolled in the welding class at Pellston High School his junior year; Mike, who was homeschooled through his junior year, joined his brother in the course during their senior year. (Any Career and Technical Education program in any Char-Em ISD is open to any student from throughout the ISD’s districts.)
At first, the brothers considered pursuing careers as blacksmiths – metalsmiths who create objects from wrought iron or steel by forging metal. But once they learned about the in-demand and high-paying career opportunities for welders throughout the country, they shifted gears and dug into learning all they could about this important skill.
The two enrolled in a summer welding camp offered by the Industrial Arts Institute and Char-Em ISD’s CTE department. As they learned more about opportunities in welding, the idea of becoming specialized underwater welders seemed appealing – until they considered the potential cold waters and adverse weather conditions that can be part of the job. They decided that pipe-fitting welding – on land – seemed to suit their interests more.
Mike Vandermus, a Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates (JMG) specialist with Northwest Michigan Works, was put into contact with the brothers toward the end of summer 2019 to help guide them about how to pursue a career in welding. Vandermus arranged for the Tietjens to do a work-study at FeAl Metal Design in Petoskey to start them off.
In September 2019, they headed south to Troy, Ohio to attend the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology, an esteemed training ground for future welders. At a fraction of the cost of college, the training academy has a high success rate of placing those who want to work hard into good-paying jobs.
And the Tietjens did want to work hard. “We did straight welding from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day,” Paul recalled. While the program is typically 9 months, COVID-19 pushed back the class, which ended up being an 11-month course for the Tietjens. “Nine months vs. four years (of college) was really appealing to me,” said Paul.
Mike said the program teaches students how to read blueprints for welding symbols and works its way through the various skill levels needed for professional welders. The students learn about metallurgy and various metals, and how some react differently to heat. Weekly tests ensured students stayed on track. At the end, they had to pass a welding test within 1/8th of an inch, or else they’d fail.
In August 2020, they both passed the test and became certified third-year apprentices – which opened the door for Hobart’s staff to start connecting them with jobs. Some grads go on to work for places like NASA, military contracting firms, oil fields and any size project in between. The Tietjens, who enjoy the freedom to travel to open jobs wherever that may be, took a couple job openings in Michigan and Wisconsin before getting the call that the Virginia project needed two welders on short notice.
“We threw everything in a bag and ended up staying here in a Motel 6 for a few weeks,” laughed Paul. The brothers now share an apartment about 30 minutes outside of their work site in Harrisonburg.
Today, the Tietjens are doing pipe-fitting as members of the welding union Local 10. They are contracted workers through the Dual Temp agency and are currently welding all of the piping for a new 32,000 square-foot refrigeration facility for Andros Products.
They are getting hands-on experience in all facets of the project, from putting up hangers and hanging pipe from the ceiling to welding pieces together to complete the infrastructure. All the rooms in the fruit production facility will be below 40 degrees, making the accuracy of the welding paramount to the business’s success.
They expect to be on this project through May 2021, then they will see what opportunity comes their way next through their union. They hope to be able to continue to follow the job openings together, but know that might not always be the case. “We can’t really foresee if we’ll stay together or not,” Mike noted.
Advice for teens thinking about the future
Mike and Paul both said having a high GPA in the welding program and perfect attendance put them at the top of the list for recommendations to job openings. “Soft skills” such as that perfect attendance and the willingness to listen and learn from instructors go a long way in earning a valued reputation in the close-knit welding world, where names get around, the brothers said.
“If you don’t put your best foot forward, everyone is going to know about you,” said Paul.
“And if you do good work, you can get really good jobs,” added Mike.
At the level-three apprentice ranking, a welder can expect to make over $21 per hour, with a $50 per diem for showing up to the work site, not including overtime. Pension and health benefits are part of the package as well.
“We show up 30 minutes early just to make sure we are there on time. Job supervisors will notice that,” said Paul.
“Be willing to learn,” added Mike. “That’s one of the biggest things. If you don’t know how to do something, ask someone to teach you. They’re willing to teach you.”
They both encourage young adults to look into the skilled trades for valued and valuable career paths, as does JMG’s Vandermus, who works with Char-Em ISD’s Career Tech team to help students in their post-secondary planning.
“Any of the trades right now is a great way to go for a career,” said Vandermus. “We are starting to see that switch from everyone being directed to go to college to seeing the value in the skilled trades industries as a viable post-high school path.”
As for the Tietjens, Vandermus said they’re the perfect example of hard-working young adults making their way in the professional world: “It was easy to get to know them and they will be successful in whatever they do. They had a plan, set goals and worked hard. They took the right steps and had the soft skills to back them up.”
Vandermus said young people today would benefit from practicing face-to-face communication skills, another important factor the Tietjens possess. “One of the biggest things we see that kids are missing today is the ability to communicate face-to-face with adults,” he noted. “Success in the trades and in anything is based a lot on the ability to speak well and make connections.”
Added Paul, “The more connections you have, the more job opportunities you have.”