Students at Thomson High School now have an on-site training program designed to help them prepare for available jobs when they graduate and meet a growing workforce need in the community.
Twenty-seven students already have enrolled in the new welding program, which began in fall 2019 after community leaders, including representatives from the school system, the local chamber of commerce and the UGA Archway Partnership, recognized the need to begin the training in high school to meet a growing shortage of skilled workers in the region.
Kerry Bridges, area manager for Georgia Power and a member of the McDuffie-Thomson Archway Partnership executive committee, asked the Georgia Power Foundation to support the new program.
“The foundation board saw that because of Fort Gordon, Savannah River Site and Plant Vogtle all in this area, there was tremendous value in this project, and they decided to support it to the tune of $100,000,” Bridges said.
Those three projects alone will employ thousands of welders and other skilled positions both during construction and in permanent, maintenance-type positions.
“We recently had a large industry move to town, Standard Iron, that had several welding positions needing to be filled,” said Debbie Jones, executive director and CEO of the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce. “Also, Thomson Two State Construction continues to stay on the lookout for qualified workers to fill vacancies at their plant.”
The expansion of Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle, about an hour away in Waynesboro, also increases the need for skilled workers in the region.
“It made sense that we bring this pathway into the school, but not without the help of funding partners Georgia Power and Jefferson Energy Cooperative,” Jones said. “We wanted to be able to expose the students to welding early, so they could obtain their certification shortly after high school and move into a well-paying career.”
The welder shortage is part of a bigger economic issue across the country. One of the most consistent complaints economic developers hear from industry is a lack of qualified employees. According to the American Welding Society, the average age for welders is 55 and fewer than 20 percent are under the age of 35.
Thomson High School’s graduation rate is 82.2 percent, the state average. About 55 percent of its graduates enroll in a technical college or a four-year college or university within 12 months of graduation, according to the Georgia Governor’s Office of School Achievement. Statewide, about 62 percent of high school graduates go on to postsecondary education within a year.
The high school graduates who forego postsecondary education are a key population for these jobs.
Courtney Moser, a former welder at Kubota, a farm and construction equipment manufacturer, teaches the welding program at Thomson High School. She was encouraged to pursue welding as a career by her former high school welding teacher in Gwinnett County, after taking the class for a needed math credit. Moser would go on to win a statewide welding competition, which included a scholarship to welding school.
“I enjoy building those relationships with my students,” she said. “If they’re looking for jobs, I can try and help after they graduate.”
Moser encourages her students to enter competitions, some of which offer scholarships just for entry. Participants in an upcoming competition in Jacksonville will receive a $500 scholarship regardless of how they perform.
Grace Sheats is a student in an advanced class launched by Moser at the request of students.
“I really like welding and it’s something I could see turning into a career,” Sheats said. “I am always in the shop. Being able to create and finish a project is awesome. I plan on taking it again next year.”
Fifteen students will complete the welding program, a Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) pathway, this year.
“This welding lab is one of the first tangible impacts of our education and workforce development partnership between the McDuffie County School System, the Archway Partnership, the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce and local industry,” said Andy Knox Sr., chairman of the school board. “We are thrilled to see how we can continue to move forward together.”