Sparks fly, engines whir, there’s a sharp, loud ping of metal against metal and computers hum while air compressors hiss and click. It’s just another day at school for students at Smyth Career & Technology Center.
These students are not sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture, writing in a notebook or even clicking a keyboard. They are getting hands-on instruction in skills that will take them directly into the workplace and some better-paying jobs.
SCTC offers opportunities for students thinking of finding a job right after high school. This work-based rather than book-based Career Technical Education experience teaches skills that are valuable in the workforce. Graduates can go right into a job earning top pay in some instances. Savings can add up for future higher education if desired.
Welding, for example, is a highly sought-after skill for which many employers are finding it difficult to fill positions.
The average age of a welder in America now is 55 years old, said Wade Kestner, welding instructor at SCTC. He was the first teacher at the school who was a former student. He studied in the first welding program in the same classroom in which he now teaches.
“The American Welding Society stated that by 2024 there will be a shortage of about 400,000 welders,” Kestner said. “We cannot furnish enough welders. I’m talking about manufacturing, but there are all kinds of other fields where welders are needed. These jobs start out at around $12 an hour locally and can go to $19 an hour the first year. Welders can average $36,000 or more their first year with American Welding Society certification.”
The need has become so great in the Virginia Beach shipyards that recruiters are going out on the streets asking for people interested in learning to weld, Kestner said.
“We’re talking about a lost generation,” stated Gardner Carrick, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute, the workforce development arm of the National Association of Manufacturers, quoted in Businessweek. “For 20 years we stopped feeding young people into the trades and now we’re scrambling to catch up.”
Kestner agreed, saying not enough encouragement is given to young people who might have an interest or talent in skilled labor. And the successful ones are out there.
“I have a student in Saltville, Derek Cardwell, who owns his own welding company,” Kestner said. “I have so many students at Utility Trailer in Atkins in management positions who advanced from the line. And inspectors at Utility in Glade.”
Austin Greer, a graduate of Chilhowie High School, took welding for four years at SCTC and some machining. Today he works at Utility Trailer in Glade Spring. He got a full-time job after participating in the partnership internship between SCTC and Utility Trailer.
Through the internship, a student who is 18 years old can go to work at Utility Trailer for a couple of hours after school until graduation. They gain experience on the job and may be offered a full-time position.
“When I first heard about it (the internship), I was real excited to get a little experience out in the field,” said Greer.
Some of the real-life skills he’s learned include staying on task and focusing on what you’re doing. And being on time for work, he said.
Tim McVey, human resources manager at Utility Trailer in Glade Spring, said the internship program started last year and Greer is a fine example of its success.
“Austin is one of the first to go through,” he said. “We got three interns, two from Smyth County, and all three are employed and doing excellent jobs.”
Greer said he always knew he wanted to work as a welder.
“Ever since I was eight or nine I have been around welding,” he said. “I knew since the seventh or eighth grade that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve learned a whole lot since I’ve been here. If you’re willing to work, I’d highly recommend it.”
And it’s that willingness to work that makes all the difference, said Kestner.
“Some students work and go to school,” he said. “I have a student who is working in a small shop and going to school. Students can earn 16 college credits through the dual enrollment with Wytheville Community College. You can get a bachelor’s degree or just an associate’s degree and you can earn enough to retire early. People don’t mind relocating because of good-paying jobs. Many want to stay in the area while others follow the pipelines.”
Another difference between school and work is the pace, with employers expecting a certain amount of timely production from their employees.
“Wade always told us when you get out in the workforce you’ll know. It’s fast-paced,” Greer said. “If I could go back and tell those boys, Mr. Kestner’s telling the truth. I’d say if you want to know what fast-paced is come down to Utility.”
If another graduate of SCTC could come back and speak to today’s students he would tell them that the learning they do there will help them better understand mathematics and that will make a world of difference in the workforce.
Steven Stroupe, a graduate of Chilhowie High School, has been working for the past several months at Special T Manufacturing in Meadowview.
“It helped me with everything,” Stroupe said of his education at SCTC. “I understood math better there because you could see it there in front of you. I actually used a lot more geometry at the center. It’s hands-on. It all clicks better.”
Stroupe said he stumbled into the precision machining program by accident.
“I started in auto trade but I just wasn’t that into it,” he said. Precision machining on the other hand was just what he needed and a gold medal in competition for CNC mill, his favorite aspect of the program, “was really fun,” he said.
Stroupe said he asked his teacher, Greg Blackburn, for a recommendation after graduation and Blackburn called a place he had worked, Special T Manufacturing, and Stoupe was offered a job.
“I love this job,” he said. “It’s nice here and the people are really nice.”
Blackburn, in his fourth year at SCTC, was able to combine his two great interests – working with machines and working with youth – in the school’s precision machining program.
“What I’ve been trying to do since I came here is build interest,” he said. “That’s number one because that’s where it starts. Once I get them in I have tried to shift the focus from a classroom book setting to hands-on learning. It’s easier to teach on a machine with a project than try to explain it in classroom seating.”
The students themselves want that visual, practical aspect of learning, he said. “They come seek me out to learn it. I focus on their need to know how to do it.”
Machinists can step up to programmers in the CNC (computer numerical control) world producing and generating code that the machine will operate off of, said Blackburn. Engineers sometimes start out as machinists.
Machinists not only work on machines, they build the machines and the tools for building the machines, Blackburn said. “A tool and die maker makes tools for machines and are highly specialized. There are some folks like that at Marion Mold and Tool who build tooling machines for industry. Machinists in maintenance might have to make the parts to repair their machines.” And engineers, he said, might arrange the machines in a production facility in order to improve and streamline the production.
“Students can get into an entry-level position right out of high school,” Blackburn said of the precision machining program. “I would recommend an associate’s degree in machining to take more specific courses.”
In the SCTC precision machining program students will learn a practical skill integrating science, math and technology to operate various machines and master the ability to make practically anything.
And they can have fun and make some money for the program as well with their skills.
Students in the program have made items to keep including tool boxes and puzzles and items to sell such as key chains. They can also now make laser designs on water bottles with a new Full Spectrum Laser machine. And there’s a potential project to make laser-printed Christmas ornaments.
The items made for sale are sold to other county schools that in turn sell them to students and parents. Money made by SCTC students goes into their shops and programs and money made by the other schools helps with their various activities.
“We went to a trade show and stopped on the way back to eat, paying with money we earned in the shop,” Blackburn said. “My students see that when they work there’s a benefit. If they want to work they can reap the rewards.”
Those rewards can be great indeed for employees who are cross-trained, those with multiple skills such as welding and precision machining.
“In a workplace you become a lot more valuable if you can cross over,” said Blackburn. “Your value goes through the roof. I would say if you want to be a welder, take two years of that and one year of machining. And if you want to be a machinist, take two years of machining and one year of welding.”
Blackburn said machinists are as hard to find as welders these days so students who graduate with these skills can often have their choice of locations.
“I tell all the kids that come through here that this is the way to go. If you’ll learn these trades you’ll never regret it. You’ll never run out of work to do.”
Students and parents who want to learn more about Smyth Career & Technology Center can call 276-646-8117. The school is located at 147 Fox Valley Road in Seven Mile Ford.