There are no shortcuts to becoming a pipeline welder. It takes years of study, work experience and certification.

Some Aboriginal students at Seabird College are taking the first step. They’re in a six-month welding foundation program that Seabird offers in partnership with Thompson Rivers University (TRU). Kinder Morgan Canada is one of sponsors of the program, which is funded by the BC Ministry of Advanced Education’s Aboriginal Community-Based Training Partnerships Program.

TRU provides the instructor, a mobile classroom, the welding equipment and a certificate of completion for program graduates. Seabird College, on the Seabird Island Reserve in the eastern Fraser Valley near Agassiz, is known for its long-term success at helping Aboriginal adult learners earn their Dogwood Diploma for completion of Grade 12 and for a wide range of career-focused post-secondary programs.

The welding students come from communities scattered around British Columbia — Haida Gwaii, Bella Coola, Canim Lake, Boston Bar, Lytton, Hope, Mount Currie and the Fraser Valley. They’re all looking for the same thing, a secure, rewarding, well-paying, family-supporting trade.

The college provides more than just a venue for aspiring welders— there’s a concurrent academic program so they can obtain a Dogwood and a wide range of support programs. There’s a tutor for those needing academic help, transportation to and from school, lunches, access to a health clinic and family counselling — a whole life package to help students launch themselves into the workforce.

“The program Seabird College offers with us is unique in the province. Nobody else does it,” welding instructor Michael Grainger explained. “There’s a huge need for this type of program where we can knit TRU and a First Nation education program together and make it work for the students.”

Aaron John from the Chawathil First Nation near Hope already has some experience in the oil and gas patch and wants to work his way back there.

“I’ve been through a Seabird program previously — the oil and gas field operator course,” John said. “I went up north to do that a bit and ended up falling into a job as a welder’s helper. I saw the work and I liked it. And the money is really good. When I got back down here, I heard through Seabird that they had some openings so I thought I’d give it a try — and I like it. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s fairly easy for me.”

“I want to go back north again, eventually.”

Stacia Thompson, also from Chawathil, learned about the welding program through a friend and discovered it wasn’t as difficult as she imagined it would be.

“I don’t want to work for minimum wage for the rest of my life,” she said.

Gerrit Bittner was working for his dad’s logging company in Bella Coola. He’s looking for a full-time, year-round trade.

“I’m a young man, 24, and I’m starting a family pretty soon so I have to get to work. It’s hard living off what I can make from logging. It can last anywhere from four to 10 months in a year. But it’s always seasonal so I have to get something a little more steady.

“My little brother completed the welding course through TRU in Kamloops and he thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d heard many good things about Seabird College. After you’re done with the program, they help you find a job and assist you in any way they can.”

“Two friends went through the exact same course. They both have great jobs now and are very happy with what they’re earning and what they’re doing.”

“It’s going well so far. I wouldn’t say it’s easy. I’ve never welded before in my life. It’s something new to learn, something exciting. And Mike is a great teacher. He makes sure we get our cuts pretty darn straight on everything we’re doing. We’re getting a lot of good practice in.”

Richard Campbell from Lytton First Nation had no previous welding experience but he’d worked with welding kits, doing things like cutting steel at construction sites.

“I’m learning a lot, about different metals, about the dangers that come along with acetylene and arc welding and whatnot. Mike’s a great teacher. I’d be willing to move for work.”

Jeremy Archie from Canim Lake took trades courses like woodworking and mechanics in high school. At 20, he took an introductory welding course and got hooked. His grandfather, he added, was also a welder.

“My father is in the mill. He builds plyboards and mostly runs the machinery. His father was a welder, an old-school welder and I really enjoyed the way he talked about it.”

His other motivator stems from a practicum he did at a fabrication ship in 100 Mile House as part of a welding introductory program. “They said if I get my foundation they’d accept me for working there.”

Bradley Peters from the Lil’wat Nation at Mount Currie said welding experience will be an asset to a career in auto mechanics.

“This opportunity showed up, so I moved here with my girlfriend. We’re having a baby in April,” Peters said. “I did a bit of welding in my service technician level one training and I really enjoyed it. It will assist me in my automotive ticket — I’m planning on working in a mechanics shop.”

Peters said he has a potential Fraser Valley employer lined up who likes the idea that he would have a welding foundation course as well as an automotive ticket.