RHINELANDER - Many companies in the Northwoods know they could expand, except for one thing.
There aren't enough skilled workers to go around.
Sometimes, well-paying manufacturing jobs go unfilled for months.
Welders are in especially short supply. One Rhinelander plant manager said eight welding jobs have been open since the fall. A welding instructor says he gets calls every day, looking for welders.
"[Welders] are fundamental to what we do," said Keith White, the president of Rhinelander-based AirPro, an industrial fan company. "It is a core competency of our company, so we're very, very serious about having the highest quality in world."
Finding those high quality welders is a challenge for White. But he hopes a scholarship awarded by AirPro might help.
On Monday, White presented 19-year-old Brandon Lambert with a $5,000 scholarship to Advanced Welding Institute in Eagle River. One of the requirements to receive the scholarship is a plan to stay in the Northwoods after graduation.
"We currently live in Lake Tomahawk. That's where the house is. I'd really like to stay there," Lambert said.
He first started welding in class at Lakeland Union High School.
"It fit me very well. I never got bored of it," Lambert said. "I was always in there welding."
"I have such high respect for people that are good with building things," White said. "That's what I saw in him."
Craig Deer, a welding instructor at Nicolet College in Rhinelander, wishes for more people like Lambert in the area.
"The Northwoods is definitely hurting for welders," Deer said. "Every day, we have employers calling us, contacting us, trying to find welders for open positions."
In part to attract more welding students, Nicolet started a new format this year called Nicolet My Way. Students can start in any month and work at their own pace.
"They decide how many hours they want to put in a week," Deer said. "A student could essentially put in 40 hours a week. They could put in five hours a week, depending on their lifestyle and their needs at the time."
Lambert will start classes at Advanced Welding Institute in Eagle River next year.
White hopes, bit by bit, new skilled workers like Lambert will help the Northwoods, and his company, AirPro.
"We want the people employed here to be the best," White said. "We're not after good enough. We're after the best."
Welders in the Northwoods generally earn good wages. Many local companies start welders above 16 or 17 dollars an hour.