Postcard from paradise: Not a book learner, but put a torch in his hands and sparks fly

Recent high school graduate Mike Kibbe, 19, found a career in welding. (Photo by John Russell)

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In certain high school classes, Mike Kibbe might as well have been from the moon. Shakespeare? He makes a whistling sound, pointing to one ear with his forefinger and continuing the motion past the other. “It just went in one ear and out the other. I really didn't get it,” recalled Kibbe, 19, a 2014 graduate of Petoskey High School. “I wasn't much good at science. I had a few E's.”

A classic hands-on learner, Kibbe perhaps most enjoyed his building trades class, where students worked together to build a modular home. But he still wasn't sure what direction his work life would take. For a while, he worked for a relative who had a house-moving business, a job that often required him to tunnel by hand, with a shovel, underneath the structure. It persuaded him to find another vocation. “That was nasty, especially in clay soil.”

Then he learned about a new welding school in Onaway in Cheboygan County. Called the Industrial Arts Institute, it offers a 15-week, full-time program that teaches a variety of welding and fabrication skills. It was established by Moran Iron Works, whose owner, Tom Moran, was having trouble finding qualified welders. Kibbe took his first class in August and by November was hired by Moran Iron Works. Since then, he's helped fabricate 500-ton, ocean-going deck barges and is now at work on a $50 million project for Consumer's Energy to build massive clean-air reduction ducts for its coal-fired plant in Ottawa County. A single section of duct can stand 40 feet high and weigh 20 tons or more.

Moran Iron Works has a strict policy that employees are to be sent home if they arrive late for work. That's never a problem for Kibbe, who earns $14 an hour and works 40 hours a week. His face smudged with welding dust at the close of work one day, he said: “I like going to work. Every day is something different. I like seeing things built from start to finish. The day just flies by.”

– Ted Roelofs

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