Alaska kids can’t escape childhood without a tale or two about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Eirik Henry heard the stories. He knew he was going to be a welder before he could walk.

“I think it’s a lot of fun to put something together that someone else can’t.”

Henry says he may not have understood the economics of the pipeline, but he knew it was a big deal for the state. Henry is in his second year as a welding apprentice at the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center. While he knows he’s going into a volatile industry, he also feels like he’s being set up for success.

“I think there’s more pressure as far as there’s less jobs in our trade right now and guys are sitting on the books longer so it makes you work harder to keep the job that you have or to get out of school. I’m fixing to and to have three or four different companies say ‘I want that guy.’ It makes you work a little harder to stay employed.”

North Slope welders aren’t just tough, they’re the best. Henry’s teacher Matt McCarter worked in the Arctic for eight winters. It was a cold, taxing, and pressure-filled job. He loved it.

“It’s the best job and if you like welding it’s the best job in the world hands down.”

McCarter’s peers call him the best welder in the state, which could make him one of the best welders in the country. That’s because the standards for welders on TAPS is the highest of any pipeline in the nation. Each weld is x-rayed and if it’s not good enough, it has to be redone. People who can’t keep up don’t last long.

McCarter says that means there’s a lot of status associated with working on the 800 mile Alaska pipeline. He would have worked the job forever had it not been for his family and the yearning for a normal work schedule. That’s why he’s now committed to training the next generation of welders.

“You’re making a positive impact out there. The stuff that you put together you’re building something. Whatever you build is going to be there probably for your lifetime.”

The Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center is a one of kind place. There’s nowhere else in the world where different members of the trade train together before they work on a job. Pipeline crafts, Teamsters, Laborers, and Operators learn their craft in different buildings, but every fall they come together to construct a small piece of the pipeline in a deserted and snow filled field outside an industrial area in Fairbanks.

Chad Hutchinson runs the school. He says the school is dedicated to keeping the strong tradition of work ethic and craftsmanship on TAPS going for a few more generations.

“After 40 years you got the people who are now ending their careers. When they started the pipeline they were 18, 19 years old and now they’re retiring; they’re moving on so there’s maintenance continued maintenance so we can keep going going going.”

The Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center holds classes for veterans, women, and teens. Some of them are free. You can also apply through the trade or union you are interested in joining. For more information, click here.

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