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They called him a foolish dreamer, but by setting realistic goals, he's risen higher than anyone ever imagined

Ernest Levert can sit back and look at his work with pride. However, he has to sit waaaaay back, because his work is orbiting more than 200 miles above the earth.

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The senior staff manufacturing engineer at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Dallas, Levert has developed welds for the International Space Station. His division manufactures photovoltaic radiators that remove excess heat from the station’s crew areas.

He devised a technique to weld elbow tubing that’s just .028 inches thick and must retain its interior dimensions to conduct coolant gages. Those radiators are now circling the planet every few minutes and are operating as designed.

These are just a few of many accomplishments for this onetime welding student and SkillsUSA member. Seeing how he reached for the stars and succeeded requires going back to his childhood in Cleveland. At age 8, Levert was already taking things apart to see how they worked.

In eighth grade, he saw a 16-mm movie on careers in metal fabrication. It showed welding — one of those great “arc and sparks” shots, Levert says. The concept intrigued him: melting materials together and making a joint that’s actually stronger than the base materials.

He attended Max S. Hayes Vocational High School, graduated in 1972 and went to work as a tool and die welder for a manufacturer of aluminum cookware.

Levert later joined the Navy, going aboard ships to supervise a hull repair and maintenance division. He recalls a time while on leave when he opened the course listings for Ohio State University: “And there it was. Welding engineering. That’s what I wanted to do.” After his Navy discharge, he enrolled at the university. He also remembers how many called him a foolish dreamer for setting his goals so high. But to him, goal setting is the best kept secret to career success.

“Don’t set your goals so high that you can’t achieve them. I set my goals, and I stuck with them ... welder, to technician, to Ohio State University,” he says.

He graduated in 1982 with a bachelor of science degree and has been honored by Ohio State as its engineering school’s outstanding alumnus.

Handling the Stress of Space

At Lockheed Martin, welding problems not only carry huge responsibility, but frequently involve huge risks, too.

“I’m the welding project manager with the International Space Station,” Levert says. “As a welding design manager, I actually work with the stress engineers, the design engineers, the quality engineers ... to put together the system which controls the environment for the astronauts on the space station.”

Where some may tremble at the thought of such a level of responsibility, Levert presses on.

“There are 15,000 Class-A welds holding these components together, and I’m the welding engineer who helped design these weldments.

“With 15,000 welds, we have 60 inspection operations to make sure when you travel at 17,500 miles per hour and you are over 200 miles in orbit above the earth, you don’t have a bad weld day. We do it right.

“It’s tough to handle that level of responsibility; it takes perseverance,” he adds. “Perseverance is the key. It took six months to develop one little technique in welding these tubes together. Once we developed the technique, then my welders did the job. It’s just perseverance ... because it isn’t easy. It was tough trying to do the job, but that’s why I’m here. That’s what they pay me the big bucks for.”

Risky Business

In 1996, the U.S. State Department mandated that the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missile be made tamper-proof for international sales. This meant that the warhead skin of the missile had to be welded to the rocket motor — a process that could be accomplished only after the missile was fully assembled and loaded with live ordnance.

“It was one of those jobs where many people just said, ‘You want to do what?’ ” Levert says. “They didn’t believe we could do it.”

He’s one of those rare individuals who believes that just because someone says something can’t be done, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Levert spent a year developing the procedures and techniques using the electron-beam welding process to make this delicate process both safe and effective, enabling Lockheed Martin to offer ATACMS for export.

A Support System Beyond Technical

Behind the goals Levert set for himself were strong family values and the inspiration of one of this country’s most influential leaders.

“My parents and my church members kept encouraging me to follow my dreams. And, Martin Luther King Jr. was a very instrumental person in my life at that time. Nonviolence is the way to go. Be judged by the content of your character, not by the color of your skin,” Levert paraphrases.

“The skills I learned through SkillsUSA are helping today. The leadership, how to deal with individuals, how to deal with personal conflicts, really helped to develop my skills.”

“I kept thinking, to be successful, this is what I have to do no matter what it takes. I wanted to succeed in life. I felt that the Lord had me here for a reason. With my brothers encouraging me, my family encouraging me ... I had a great support structure to keep me going. I’ve been knocked down, but I keep picking myself back up by the bootstraps, and I keep going on.”

It’s easy to sense Levert’s gratitude for the success he’s achieved, and that translates to a humility that allows him to roll up his sleeves and work with his staff. As a senior engineer, Levert still relies on the basic skills he picked up in high school when he actually gets “under the hood.”

“I have to keep my skills up,” he explains. “I’m one of the few welding engineers who can also weld. So when my welders come up and say, ‘Ernest, that procedure won’t work,’ I take my tie off, put the hood on, and I show them that it will work. I have to show them sometimes before they will listen to what I have to say. That’s why I keep my skills sharp.”

In addition to technical skills, Levert relies on the leadership skills he learned as a member of SkillsUSA.

“The skills I learned through SkillsUSA are helping today,” he says. “The leadership, how to deal with individuals, how to deal with personal conflicts, really helped to develop my skills. That was 30 years ago, and I’m still using those same basic fundamentals today.”

Higher and higher

Listening to Levert, it sounds as if he can’t believe his good fortune. At the time of this interview, he was preparing to present a paper on welding and the International Space Station.

“I leave next Saturday for Bucharest,” he says in disbelief. “I’m sharing my knowledge with my colleagues throughout the world. This is a great opportunity. I’m now the No. 2 guy in the world on high-energy-beam processes.

“From a welder to the president of the AWS — and now I’m also with the International Institute of Welding, a consortium of 40 different countries who come together annually to talk about welding as a technology.”

With satisfied smile, he adds, “Welding actually holds the world together, and I’m a true witness to that.”

G -

O -

A -

L -

S

Earnest Levert sets his goals using the word itself as an acronym:

"G" stands for going for the gold. "It takes time and it takes hard work." A spiritual man, he adds that for him, G also stands for God.

"O" stands for opportunity, adds the onetime national president of the American Welding Society. "There are so many opportunities in the 21st century. AWS gives away a quarter of a million dollars in scholarships. Take the time, find the money; the money is there."

"A" is for attitude. "You have to have the right attitude, and you have to stay focused."

"L" is for leadership. "The lead dog always sees how direction is changing, and all the other dogs behind just follow."

"S" means stick to it. "Overcome the obstacles."

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SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2004 | Volume 38, No. 4
Copyright ©2004 SkillsUSA. All rights reserved.

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