BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
WEAKLEY COUNTY (December 31) – Welders join materials and know about fusion. Recently, welding students from across the county were able to join together to learn more about a career path that workshop organizers say could fuse knowledge and experience into profitable career paths.
After Agriculture teacher Kyle Rogers and his Westview students heard a brief one-hour overview by gas and welding supplies provider Holston Gases in McKenzie, he asked if it were possible to organize a lengthier hands-on presentation for all Weakley County Schools. Within a few weeks, representatives from Holston, Lincoln Electric and MTD (now Stanley Black & Decker) were standing before a shop filled with interested students covering the basic principles before overseeing students donning safety gear and applying what they heard on both stick welding and a mig machine.
The day was organized by Troy Hollis, who does outside sales for Holston Gases in McKenzie, currently the gas and welding supplier for all the Weakley County and Obion County Schools and most of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) locations.
Hollis said he eagerly became involved in the morning of training because he wanted students in his native Weakley County to hear of information and opportunities he had not been exposed to when he was in school. Along with promoting the financial benefits to pursuing a job in welding, inspection, building robots, and other aspects of the fabrication, he was also excited for students to see what he calls the “beautiful science of welding” – knowing how deep to get the weld, the issues caused by porosity (presence of cavities in the weld metal), rust and more.
In his opening remarks, his respect for a profession that historically he notes has been considered a “dirty job” is evident as he told the students, “Did you walk here? Most of you drove. You better hope that the engineers that manufactured those cars knew what they were doing or those wheels could fall apart at any time. Or the bridges you came across, it’s the same thing.”
He then moved from theory to practicality as he underscored, “You can go to TCAT, do a 12-month program and once you come out you can instantly go to making $25 to $30 an hour.”
Tennessee Promise – both a scholarship and mentoring program – ensures students interested in topics like welding can attend a Tennessee College of Applied Technology by providing a last-dollar scholarship, meaning the scholarship will cover tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grant, the Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant, or state student assistance funds.
Scott McDonald, Fabrication Manager and 30-year employee at MTD who started his career while attending the University of Tennessee at Martin, expanded on the discussion of opportunities. Having worked on the manufacturing plant’s press and maintenance while in school, he then utilized his electrical engineering degree and eventually moved into management.
He described the local pathway open to students with a knowledge of welding who come directly from high school or gain a job with a GED.
“We have a team leader that needs to know how to weld but also gets a dose of managing a small group of people,” he explained. “There’s another step up called a robot technician who has to program robots and they get into a little bit of electronics and electronic software and actually troubleshoot and set up machines. So they can grow from in this local area and start out at an $18, 19, 20 an hour job and go up to $25 or $26 an hour job.”
He also admonished, “I hope you like math. You’re going to use it. Take your math classes seriously. That’s going to be beneficial in the long run no matter what you do.”
Austin Hill, technical sales engineer for Lincoln Electric with worldwide offices, said he came from his remote office at his home in Collierville “to help inspire and encourage people to pick up welding. It’s something every community needs.”
After a stint with the Marine Corps and four years at a university where he too performed welding jobs while completing his degree, he still had to undergo 15 additional weeks of welding instruction before entering sales for Lincoln Electric. He demonstrated some of those skills to the students after a brief presentation on the basics, questioning the savvy students on aspects to which they readily and correctly responded.
Kyle Robertson, branch manager of the McKenzie location of Holston, offered praise for the educators who are making career and technical education possible for area students.
“It’s advantageous to invest in these kids and get them out in the workforce,” he underscored. “I’m actually on the board of the American Welding Society out of Nashville, Tennessee and every meeting we have we hear, ‘There’s a shortage of welders out there.’
“We’ve got to get these kids engaged, wanting to do that as a career, and there’s a lot of money to be made at it.”
Justin Crice, CEO of Weakley County Economic Development Board, attended the event in support of what he describes as a great need in the area.
“I think we’ve got to do more to expose students to what it looks like to work, especially in Weakley County and this is one step in the right direction,” he concluded.
Rogers, who spends somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of his class time in the Westview shop, covering safety topics in the classroom, was pleased with the turnout and grateful to Holston Gases, Lincoln Electric, and MTD for the continuing support they give to students with the provision of resources throughout the year. He commended his fellow ag mechanics instructors Jonathan Holden at Dresden High School, Archie Riggs at Gleason and Matt Humphreys at Greenfield for working together.
“I think it’s important for the students to see the community come together and support programs in manufacturing and see the opportunities that are out there for careers outside of a four-year university. You don’t always have to go to university, you can go to a tech school or a manufacturing facility and make a good living and have a really good job, a really good career,” he said.