The hiss and sparks from state-of-the-art welding technology in a converted labat Mt. Pleasant High School could easily be mistaken for one of Maury County’s many successful manufacturing operations.
The recently converted garage is a training ground and the center of the high school’s ongoing effort to give students a jump-start at a successful career.
The space is equipped with the latest Flux-cored welding rigs, as well as a plasma-cutter that acts as a super-charged CNC router.
Launched two years ago, the high school’s welding program held in partnership with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology offers students an opportunity to graduate high school with a certification in basic welding, preparing them for further education in the field or to be hired directly out of high school by local industry leaders.
On Wednesday, school district leaders, community members and industry partners gathered to celebrate the program’s continued support and expansion thanks to a $10,000 contribution made last year by the Columbia-based BMC Metalworks.
The funds directly supported the school’s purchase of additional equipment and training resources, including a plasma cutter and the construction of four metal booths allowing students to safely weld in close proximity to one another.
The program continues as the industry forecasts the need for 400,000 new welders by 2023 and more than 6 million employees by 2030 across the U.S.
“We see this as a pipeline to our business and the industry,” said Jimmy Phillips, the president and owner of BMC Metalworks. “We are struggling to find qualified, skilled trade employees. We could grow our business with the addition of these kinds of programs. We are always needing more skilled trade employees.”
BMC Metalworks, established in 1974 in Columbia, is a full service machining, press repair and fabrication company. Its field team provides 24-hour emergency service to manufacturers across the country.
The company also maintains an active welding shop that is capable of working with most steels and alloys.
BMC says it offers the most popular welding services, including tack welding, spot welding and overlay or build-up welding using a variety of welding practices.
Over the past decade, BMC has grown to more than 50 employees and has continued to expand its service footprint to include all of North America.
“We feel like partnerships in the community are extremely important, and we are a fan of public education,” Phillips said. “This trade skill relationship and partnership with the industry will benefit both the school and certainly our industry. That is one of the driving factors. We had a vision, but to be honest, we had no idea that it was going to be this comprehensive. We wrote a small check, and it has worked out for all of us.
“If we can start the kids early on in these skilled-trade programs that is going to benefit us. It gives us a chance to work with the schools.”
The project is one of several cross-campus collaborative projects that embody the school’s STEAM initiative combining science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.
Other projects underway at the school include the construction of a tiny home, a splash pad for the city and a new media arts lab that now serves as a studio for school’s new television network.
Emma Kate Chapman, a 17-year-old senior at Mt. Pleasant, is one of 15 students taking the welding course which falls under the academic discipline of advanced manufacturing.
“This gives me plenty of opportunities, and there are plenty of opportunities out there to make good money,” Chapman said. “We have a good time out here, and we learn a lot. My families does welding, so I get to see this at home and here. It is a hot and stinky job, but it is fun. It is like a head-start. I can go through BMC, and they will give me a job; and it helps you get on your feet, so you are not lost.”
Chapman said she is considering pursuing the career in the future but also has her eyes set on a career in radiology.
William Cothran, a fellow senior and classmate, plans to get a full certification in welding and a business degree, so he can run his own welding business.
“This really gets us into it,” Cothran said. “It is something different. It gives me a skill that I can use in my life. It makes it a reality, something I can do in life and allows me to get feedback from people, who are working in the field.”
Tony Grooms instructs the welding program at Mt. Pleasant along with the schools’ agriculture courses.
“This gives them a change to get their foot in the door,” Grooms said. “Nothing can ever guarantee you a job, but in this situation, they are in a very good position. It gives them a chance to get started early.”
Grooms said he has watched his students graduate with the basic certification and be hired at local businesses, making more than than $20 an hour.
“That is how bad they need welders now,” Grooms said. “That means Mt. Pleasant has a lot to offer. A matter of fact, we have some kids down at Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Pulaski, who came from here who are getting ready to graduate. I think they are going to have accesses to any job they want, thanks to their certification.”
The investment further develops the welding program first introduced at the high school in 2018, with funds from a $500,000 contribution from a Columbia-based research company Parker Hannifin and its predecessor CLARCOR.
BMC Metalworks recently expanded its operations with a new 3,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art CNC precision and high volume machining center.
When celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary in 2014, the company experienced a 20% to 40% year-over-year growth and doubled its workforce since 2009.
Over the past decade, BMC has staffed about 50 employees and has continued to expand its service footprint to include all of North America.
“It is going to take partnerships to get us to where we need to be as a nation,” said Ryan Jackson, principal at Mt. Pleasant High School. “We wanted to take welding as a prime example as an opportunity for kids to feel motivated and see the light at the end of the tunnel. Kids today are pragmatic. They are worldly and have all the information at their fingertips. They get bored easily. They get distracted easily. We need to put these real-world, tangible pieces in front of them and show them the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and show them that this is a lucrative career that is sustainable.”
The welding program is the latest in an ongoing effort to expand students’ exposure to career and technical education and to integrate a cooperative, hands-on learning approach into each classroom in the district.
Project-based learning, or PBL, is a student-centered method. It involves a dynamic classroom approach centered on the belief that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. Students learn about a subject by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem.
Mt. Pleasant High School has spearheaded the effort through its mechatronics program, working on collaborative projects like student-designed and built escape rooms, the construction of a tiny home, and the use of drones to help farmers better care for their land to fight the spread of Zika.
Columbia Central High School and Spring Hill High School also offer the mechatronics program as a dual-enrollment opportunity with Columbia State Community College.
Launched in 2016, the public school district and the community college been working in unison to offer a joint program that gives Maury County’s high school students the ability to earn an associate degree of applied science in advanced integrated industrial technology alongside their high school diploma.
The multidisciplinary field of science that includes a combination of mechanical engineering, electronics, computer engineering, telecommunications engineering, systems engineering and control engineering.
Mt. Pleasant’s neighboring Hampshire Unit School also serves as a keystone program, partnering with the University of Tennessee’s Agriculture Program and CSCC, offering a Kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum focus on agriculture, preparing students to pursue degrees in the field at UT.
In 2020, Mt. Pleasant’s Elementary, Middle and High Schools received the Tennessee STEM School Designation alongside Randolph Howell Elementary, also in Mt. Pleasant.
A total of 22 schools across the state have earned the distinction for 2020, selected by the Tennessee Department of Education along with the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network.
“We are here to change lives,” Jackson said. “We want our kids to be thinking as creators, not merely consumers. Yes, there are learning standards and informational texts, but they are creating in here every single day, and we are leveraging that into a career that is sustainable for them.”
Reach Mike Christen at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MikeChristenCDH and on Instagram @michaelmarco. Please consider supporting his work and that of other Daily Herald journalists by subscribing to the publication.