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Learning the Trade

Posted in Features on July 1, 2013
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Troy Johnson (in black) and his talented group of hard-working instructors and students have made The Fab School the place to learn every aspect of fabricaton.

Fab Schools 1 Photo 68809503 Troy Johnson (in black) and his talented group of hard-working instructors and students have made The Fab School the place to learn every aspect of fabricaton.

Author: Scott Neth Photos: Joe Bonnello

Back in 2005, fabricator Troy Johnson found himself in a dither. While building a Pro 2 truck for Mike Leslie, Troy and his staff at Johnson Fabrication found themselves shorthanded, and a lack of qualified personnel in his Riverside, California home area meant that he couldn’t meet the demands of his customers. With a bevy of interested but untrained people offering to do the work for free if he’d only train them, Johnson decided to take them up on their offer. Figuring that he could teach those who wanted to learn, pick and choose those whose help he could use, and then get back to his shop’s projects, Johnson started teaching his first crop of students. From there things sort of “blew up,” as Johnson says, and The Fab School was born. Eight years on Johnson’s creation is still running strong and has become not only the industry leader, but really the only school of its kind, imparting the knowledge and skills necessary for aspiring fabricators to turn their passion into a career.

With a maximum of 13 students per every instructor, hands on instruction and interaction is the norm.

JY1F0303 Photo 68809530 With a maximum of 13 students per every instructor, hands on instruction and interaction is the norm.

Getting To Know The Fab School In terms of classes, Johnson and his staff of four teachers offer three levels of instruction: Introduction to Fabrication, Intermediate Fabrication and Fundamentals of Fabrication. While the topics covered in each level vary from one course to the next, one thing remains consistent: shop time. When compared with the number of in-class lecture hours, most students will likely be glad to find that the majority of their time is spent doing hands-on learning. “These guys are in the shop immediately,” Johnson says proudly. “The majority of thanks I get come in the first week of school, because guys feel they’re getting exactly what they paid for. They’re blown away by the skills they get and the tools they get to work with in that first week. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’re welding on the first day, that we’re rebuilding shocks within a month. We throw ‘em right into the fire. There’s a lot of shop time.” In addition to shop time, students of The Fab School further benefit from their experience thanks to small class sizes. With a maximum of just 13 students per instructor, those in attendance receive far more one-on-one time here than they would at most other places of education. Furthermore, with a good mix of individual projects, projects that pair two students and projects that team five or more students, these fabricators-in-training get a lot of hands-on “into the fire” work to experience. Currently, Johnson is also in the process of adding further perks to The Fab School, working to create a certificate program that will give qualifying graduates Certified Welder status, as well as opening a second school in Alabama. Our newer readers may be unfamiliar with The Fab School and what it offers, so here are the basics. The Fab School, located in Riverside, California, is a true nationally accredited fabrication school in the world of metal art. Many schools try to throw around the term “accredited,” but The Fab School is the real deal, having spent six years and more than $10,000 just to obtain national accreditation. “My accrediting body is like my tax guy,” Johnson says. “In them, we’ve always got a partner on our thumb, who is saying, ‘you can’t do it like that.’”

Students at the Fab School begin to weld and fabricate immediately with the focus on learning by doing instead of lengthy classroom lectures.

JY1F0348 Photo 68809506 Students at the Fab School begin to weld and fabricate immediately with the focus on learning by doing instead of lengthy classroom lectures.

A Qualified Teacher As founder of The Fab School, prospective students would likely expect that Johnson’s teachings come from a background of experience. All too often it seems in our education system, students are left to learn from “those who can’t do,” but in Johnson’s case, he is anything but that. Having started fabricating in high school, Johnson worked for three prestigious racing names (Curt LeDuc, Walker Evans and Mike Leslie), before opening Johnson Fabrication some 11 years prior to creating The Fab School. With nearly 30 years of experience under his belt to date, Johnson is a master fabricator, and the skills taught and equipment used at The Fab School reflect the wealth of knowledge waiting to be imparted on eager minds. While many common industry basics like MIG and TIG welding, notching and bending, suspension tuning and more are found in The Fab School’s curriculum, several more advanced skills also await, such as mill and lathe operations, multiple levels of aluminum work, chassis design and front suspension software. Johnson and his staff are competent in all aspects of their instruction, as all instructors must have a minimum of ten years of experience in the industry. Furthermore, one of Johnson’s own students has returned to be an assistant, something Johnson says is not at all uncommon among his alumni. “We’ve had many, many students come back for more,” Johnson says. “We’ve even had students get grumpy because we’ve had to tell them that there’s nothing more for them to come back to,” he laughs. While he has a sense of humor about such happenings, Johnson’s courses are no cake walk, and taking them to completion entails a lot of time and effort — 1000 logged and verified hours combined for the three courses. Indeed, those coming back for more aren’t coming back because they haven’t learned a lot already; they come back because they’ve had such good experiences at The Fab School.

Challenges of instruction Like any teacher, Johnson faces challenges in the classroom, but at The Fab School, those challenges can be unique. When asked who was more difficult to teach, students with previous experience or those without, Johnson was hesitant before giving an answer. “It varies, but if I had to pick one, I’d say people with some background,” Johnson finally decided. “People come in whose dad always told them that there is only one way to weld, but there are many different styles and techniques. There are bad habits to break.” “I like people who come in starting with nothing,” Johnson adds. “People who have nothing tend to make it happen despite their lack of equipment, so it’s fun to see how they improvise.” The biggest challenge Johnson faces, though, is questions. “People tend to get the big picture,” Johnson says, “but they don’t ask the little questions, so we challenge them to ask as many questions as possible.”

Successes Abound From the projects its students create, to the skills its students acquire and the success its students find beyond their schooling, The Fab School can boast a proud reputation with regard to its alumni. “We built the Ford Raptor that went out and beat Robby Gordon at Dakar,” Johnson boasts. “Our tube fitting and notching is superior, just as good as any computer aided drafting, and our welding is great, too. We introduce our students to every job in our industry, and if they want to go out and get further education in specific fields that we don’t cover in-depth, they can move on from here and do that, too.” Perhaps most impressive about The Fab School is its ability to place its graduates successfully into jobs. “We have a 93 percent placement rate for our Introduction to Fabrication course, 96 percent from Intermediate Fabrication, and 100 percent from our Fundamentals class!” shares Troy. The Fab School has also seen some successful people walk through its doors, both as students and as guest instructors. “We had Rodrigo Ampudia, Mike Metzger, Valerie LeDuc and Walt Disney’s nephew. The one I’m most proud of is a guy named Michael, who lived 100 miles south of The North Pole. We also had Jeff Davis come and do a lecture on aluminum, and that was attended by a lot of industry professionals, including Greg George of Funco.” The Fab School’s students have gone on to notable careers, as well. “Travis Schulz was from here in Riverside, and he packed up and moved to Vegas to work for Menzies Motorsports. And Scott Duncan is now at Pratt and Whitney up in Simi Valley, doing tube fitting for the nose cones.”

With over a 90% placement rate for all levels of instruction, students use their skills after graduating as well.

JY1F0377 Photo 68809569 With over a 90% placement rate for all levels of instruction, students use their skills after graduating as well.

Here To Stay Looking back, Johnson had no idea that his ability to teach could turn into such a wonderful thing. “It turned out to be something bigger than I’d ever imagined, the desire to learn to fab and get into the industry. A lot of people just want to learn it as a hobby, but it’s really rewarding to have people call you up and thank you for teaching them, getting them a job, etc. They call you up, send you pictures of their latest builds, it’s very special.” Johnson feels that once his students have reached the end of one of his courses, they will have become valuable assets to potential employers. “The one thing that we can guarantee you is that we are gonna give you somebody that has the passion, someone with a good attitude, someone who wants to better themselves,” Johnson says, “and that they can stick two pieces of material together, that they’ve got the fundamentals down.” Today, The Fab School fills a unique niche, for as Johnson puts it, “there’s a lack of training, or even interest, in the world of fabrication.” As this trade slowly fades with the retiring of older, experienced fabricators, there is a real lack of young recruits coming down the pipeline to take their places, and The Fab School is one of the only places around that is doing something about that. For Johnson, fabrication is more than just off-road cars, it’s the entire job market for which fab skills are paramount, and he does his best to ensure that his students understand that with the education they receive at The Fab School, there is a world of possibility out there for them. From choppers to hot rods, wrought iron fences to metal sculptures, there is plenty of work out there for those who have the right education. “Any school is important,” Johnson insists. “If you’re passionate about a job, you can’t go wrong with any type of schooling.” By sticking to his guns and creating a quality program, Johnson and The Fab School have endured while other competitors have come and gone. Through a sincere concern for meaningful education, The Fab School has become something of true value in our industry, serving around 150 students per year. “We’ve stayed small,” Johnson says, “and haven’t grown too fast. We have a curriculum, and we just keep trying to master that curriculum. We never ventured away from that, we just kept trying to make it better and better. That’s the problem I see with other schools: they have no curriculum. I don’t care about your single project that you came here to finish. I care about the hundreds of projects you’ll have in your life. You can’t bring your project here and work on it. We can talk about it in class, but you’re gonna learn how to work on all of our projects.” With that ethos, Johnson and The Fab School continue to create the next crop of talented craftsmen for the Dirt Sports Nation and beyond.

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