Erick Belmer has been an industrial mechanic at the General Motors Parma Plant for three years, keeping production equipment and building structures functioning as they should. At 50, and with a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from North Central State College, Belmer never considered going back to school.
But GM, which requires continuous learning of its employees, was sending Belmer to Lorain County Community College to learn how to weld. Lou Chapman, UAW Apprentice Co-Chair at General Motors, had worked with LCCC’s welding instructor, Larry Waller, to build a GM tool steel repair program that combined welding overview courses with a focus on tool steel.
Belmer walked into LCCC’s welding lab knowing nothing about welding and with a feeling he’d need extra attention from the instructor to master the techniques.
He was right.
“By the first week in class I was totally lost,” Belmer says. “The other students were better at vocally expressing their concerns, but I was so lost I didn’t know what to ask.”
But his instructor, Larry Waller, knew exactly what to ask. Waller has been teaching welding at LCCC for more than 20 years and says people often underestimate its difficulty. “We’ve had a lot of groups from GM come in to learn welding and this is a whole new realm for them,” Waller says.
Seeking the science
In a six-week program, students need to master the basic techniques in an accelerated timeframe. Waller says while it is difficult, if a student is diligent and ready to learn, he’ll do all he can to help them understand it. Waller saw that Belmer was both.
So Waller approached him one day while the class was on a break with a simple question – what do you see when you’re welding?
“I could tell he wanted to learn but was really struggling,” Waller says. “And if he’s not seeing it like I do, I have to ask – what are you seeing. And we went from there.”
It was during that conversation that Waller realized Belmer could see the science behind welding – a rare occurrence in his classroom.
“Most people just want to be able to make a serviceable weld,” Waller says. “When you start talking to students about heat control, weld pool size, and surface tension holding the weld in place until it can solidify, most students go blank and say, ‘Wow, I just want mine to look like yours.’”
But Waller says Belmer ‘lit up’ during that conversation. And in simply listening to his questions, it became obvious
to Waller that Belmer had a science background and wanted to understand exactly what was happening in the weldpool. So the two continued to talk about what Belmer saw during the process, compared to what Waller saw.
“Erick took hold of that information and started to see what I was trying to show him,” Waller says. “And his welds got better and better.”
Toward the end of the six weeks, Waller began using Belmer’s welding techniques as an example to the class.
“I would call the other students over and tell them, ‘You need to step into Erick’s booth and see what this guy’s doing,’” Waller says.
A connection for life
Belmer says he’s never experienced this personal method of teaching from an instructor. Perhaps that’s because Waller has learned, over decades of instruction, that every student learns differently and at various paces. So he, in turn, differentiates his teaching to include them all.
“Some students will be days or weeks ahead, others will struggle. You can’t leave either one in the dust – those excelling or those behind. You do what’s right for the student – every student,” Waller says.
This inclusive approach helped Belmer master a skillset he found impossible the first week of the program. And in August, Belmer completed his certification.
“I was in disbelief when it said I passed,” Belmer recalls.
Belmer might have not expected to pass, but Chapman never had doubts, knowing how successful the program has been.
“The customized welding program has been a homerun,” Chapman says. “And Larry has been instrumental in transferring his skillset to our employees who take the content and use it on the floor.”
Before Belmer left campus, he stopped by the welding lab to thank Waller for his help. He needed his instructor to know what a positive experience he had in the program. And in Waller, Belmer now has a connection for life.
“Kudos to Erick for all his hard work; he’s a new friend,” Waller says. “I give all my students my card and tell them if they have any issues on the job, or are in need of work, to give me a call, shoot me a text.”
Belmer isn’t sure when he’ll be called to use his newfound skillset at work. But it doesn’t matter to him. The educational experience has changed him for the better. He’s a lifelong learner now. And he knows that there are people, like Waller, who simply want to teach those willing to learn.
“Being a welding instructor means more to him than just a job; he actually wants to make a difference, and he has in me,” Belmer says.