FREMONT - Staring through her wraparound safety sunglasses at the white-hot flame, Marsha Bordner inched the oxyacetylene torch toward the pieces of connected copper pipe, trying to heat them enough so she could "braze" them together with a silver-alloy rod.
Behind her in the lab at Terra Community College, instructor Robert Feduik placed his hand over hers and helped the nervous newcomer steady the torch over the glowing red pipes, held upright in a vise.
"Don't cook the rod, cook the copper," he told her gently, as she pushed the long, thin piece of metal against the pipe. "Nice and slow. As long as it's moving, it's fine."
Seconds later, Ms. Bordner exclaimed "ohhhh!" in dismay as a hole appeared in a blackened section of the pipe.
But on her next try, with two sections of pipe and a connector held horizontally, Ms. Bordner was perfect.
An inspection showed two pieces of copper brazed together from top to bottom, with the filling as thick as the metal itself.
"You got it. You got 100 percent," Mr. Feduik told Ms. Bordner.
"Woo hoo!" she said, a big smile covering her face.
Ms. Bordner, whose day job is serving as Terra's president, took a turn yesterday with the torch to get a first-hand look at the school's program in a fast-growing field - heating, ventilating, and air conditioning repair and construction.
She said the experience gave her a new appreciation for refrigerator repairmen. Brazing is used to connect pipes in high-pressure systems, such as refrigeration units.
"It is kind of delicate," she said. "You've got to know what you're doing."
Eric Johnson, an HVAC student from Tiffin who watched Ms. Bordner work with the torch, said he appreciated her visit to the lab.
"It's pretty cool that she'd come down here, being the president and all," he said.
Mr. Feduik, an assistant professor with Terra's engineering and industrial technology division, said the school's HVAC program attracts a mix of laid-off factory workers and recent high school graduates.
For instance, Mr. Feduik said eight of the 71 students in the program are laid-off workers from American Standard in Tiffin, which cut 200 jobs in June. "I think the bulk of our students are middle-aged and retraining," he said.
Nationally, there's plenty of demand for HVAC contractors, especially in Florida, where businesses and homeowners are trying to rebuild from the recent string of hurricanes.
"Nationally, there's about 500,000 jobs that need filling," Mr. Feduik said. "Our biggest crisis area right now is Florida, where they're trying to get everything back together. Right now, you've got a job waiting for you. They're going to be busy for the next two, three years."
Terra offers a two-year HVAC program that allows students to earn an associate's degree. An accelerated, nine-month program gives enrollees a quick way to become a certified technician.
Mr. Johnson, who was laid off from his job at a tire distribution warehouse in Findlay earlier this year, entered the accelerated program this fall. He spends eight hours a day, four days a week in class.
"I need some education because I want to get a better job," he said.
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