For 15 years, Doug Thompson has helped the youth of Floyd County, Virginia find work in a rural area where it’s hard to come by the professional tools they need to succeed. To overcome the geographic obstacles, Thompson created a program that teaches welding skills to high school students. But Thompson’s class isn’t like most welding programs you’ll find in American high schools. In fact, his program transcends the workshop by helping students land real jobs through practical experience, certifications, access to industry leaders, and genuine career opportunities. In short, Thompson’s program is designed to fill each student’s professional toolbox with the tools they need to stand out in a highly competitive job market. This week, we’re sharing four strategies for improving welding education based on Thompson’s real-world teaching approach.
All welding programs should help certify students for employability. Thompson ensures that his students are employable by incorporating AWS SENSE standards and guidelines into his own curriculum. By following the SENSE program, Thompson’s students don’t just learn how to weld, they’re also qualified to weld plate in the 2G and 3G positions. Welding plate in these positions is the minimum requirement for students to graduate. However, Thompson doesn’t allow his students to stop there. He encourages them to reach even higher by attaining additional skills and qualifications. In fact, many of his students are also qualified to weld in the 4G and 5G welding positions.
In addition to practical welding techniques, Thompson also provides his students with basic health and safety training. For example, his students are required to complete OSHA, First Aid, and CPR training. Thompson stresses to his students that welding certifications aren’t the only endorsements that impress potential employers. In fact, the welding workplace usually requires basic health and safety knowledge. Having these additional certifications can give students a leg-up over other job applicants.
Thompson also recommends regular visits from guest speakers. According to Eliot Yearout-Patton, a 2004 Floyd County graduate, Thompson’s class gives you “access to a lot of people in the field you wouldn’t normally have access to.” There are several benefits to having guest speakers. First, guest speakers help keep students informed of the latest industry standards. This kind of first-hand knowledge helps prepare students for the job market. Second, guest speakers bring a level of expertise to the classroom. They can answer student questions about specialty fields that the classroom instructor might not be familiar with. Third, guest speakers allow instructors to assess if their curriculum is relevant to industry needs. For example, the current gap in STEM skills has motivated welding instructors to incorporate basic math and science into their curriculum in unique ways. Fourth, guest speakers engage students by adding variety to the typical classroom experience.
Thompson also suggests that instructors form partnerships with local unions. One of the best ways to line up guest speakers and establish a strong support foundation for your program is to turn to local unions. These partnerships facilitate students’ transitions into the workforce. They also ensure that the classroom curriculum continues to represent industry needs and demands. Ten years ago, Thompson formed a partnership with Steve Martin, agent at the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 10 in Roanoke, Virginia. Thompson had hoped to recruit his students for the Local’s apprenticeship program – a five-year program that only accepts 6 candidates per year out of a pool of 80 applicants. According to Martin, the endeavor “started out slow, but picked up steam. We helped them out with supplies and materials and training in the different processes in welding, giving them the point of view from the pipefitting side.” The support and training students receive from Local 10 also gives them an advantage for landing the actual apprenticeship. According to Martin, Thompson’s students have “pretty good odds” at earning a slot. “A lot of kids are going straight into the apprenticeship right now because of the quality of Mr. Thompson’s class,” said Yearout-Patton. “Thompson developed an excellent relationship with the local union. It is a strong feeder program, giving people a chance to make an affordable living and have a career.” These local apprenticeships are essential to welder training. They aren’t just about lengthening a résumé, they’re about giving students the confidence and knowledge to easily prove themselves to employers in an increasingly global job market.
In addition to unions, Thompson recommends reaching out to businesses that will likely employ students when they graduate. Thompson has partnered-up with Buckner Steel in Graham, N.C., a steel production company that makes heavy-lift cranes, football stadiums, and other massive projects. Because of Thompson’s relationship with the company, its owners have dedicated themselves to hiring students from Thompson’s class.
Thompson goes beyond the call of duty to ensure that his students have every opportunity possible. For him, “it’s not about the money. It’s not about the prestige. It’s caring enough to get his students out where they can make a good living and have benefits for their family,” Martin said. “That’s his main goal and it’s showing.” For Thompson’s rural students, the program is invaluable. It offers skills, certifications, and opportunities that would be very difficult for them to come by on their own. To find out more about Thompson’s strategies for student success, check out the full story “Helping Students Fill their Professional Toolboxes” by Annik Babinski in the April 2016 issue of the Welding Journal, free with your AWS membership.
What do you think about Thompson’s methods? What are some of the best classroom experiences you’ve had? Do you use any unique strategies in your classroom? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
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