March 2009 - School administrators are constantly weighing the importance and effectiveness of their educational programs, particularly in times of budgetary constraint. Unfortunately, vocational programs are often among the first to see their funding reduced or cut entirely. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2008, there was approximately $2.2 million less in funding for national vocational education programs than in 2007 and nearly $4.2 million less than 2002 levels, a 35 percent reduction.
One program that's succeeding in spite of this discouraging trend is the welding programat Florence High School in Florence, Colo. Not only are classes full and students engaged but also students have to be turned away because of the program's growing popularity. In a job market where new manufacturing and fabrication talent is hard to come by, that's definitely unique.
Started in 1977 inside a semitruck trailer, the program has grown to include four courses in a four-year program. Students start with an applied technology course that teaches basic welding terminology and safety and introduces them to welding equipment. Students also design and build go-karts during the class. From there, they move on to Welding 1 and Welding 2, where they're given a progressively deeper examination of the nuances of GMAW, GTAW and arc welding, as well as oxy-fuel cutting. Students also get experience using a CNC plasma cutting machine. Through both courses, specific design assignments are given to each student, ranging from custom signs to truck beds to converted golf carts.
Finally, Welding 3, now in its sixth year, is considered an independent study, where students produce metal art or products for area businesses, and it includes sales and marketing requirements.
On top of this, students are given college credit for these courses, and Welding 1 and Welding 2 are articulated with nearby Pueblo Community College, Pueblo, Colo.
"Since I've been here, we've always had an articulation with the community colleges," says Tuffy Lawson, the head of the welding program and a former student in it. "I teach a night class to adults two nights a week at Pueblo Community College, and the kids have the opportunity to enroll in that same class. We used to have to send them to the community college, but now we can teach that course in-house, and the kids can have 12 to 16 college credits when they leave as a senior for any community college in the state."
Lawson is also working on a job-shadowing program with area manufacturers to allow students to see firsthand what a manufacturing career is like. It's also not unheard of for local companies and business owners looking for summer help to call Lawson and ask for one of his students. In fact, some who call were once students in the welding program themselves.
What's more, in helping keep the program's equipment up to date, Florence High School receives school discounts on welding equipment from industry leaders like The Lincoln Electric Co., Cleveland, and Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Appleton, Wis.
Although changing students' and parents' perceptions of a welding career is important, Lawson's ultimate goal is to teach the kids the skills necessary to be dependable employees, regardless of their final career pursuit.
"I want them to be responsible," says Lawson. "I want them to show up to work on time and have a good work ethic. They all have specific jobs to do at the end of the day for cleanup; they're responsible for different areas of the shop and for the machines that they're running. They know how they work, whether it's how to fix them or repair them, and I want them to have those basic skills when they leave. They may go somewhere else and find something we haven't covered here, but I feel like if they have those basic skills and they're good workers, they're going to shine regardless."
The Florence High School welding program has succeeded precisely because it gives students a safe, encouraging environment to explore their interests, without pressuring them or overwhelming them with projects they can't handle. By highlighting a variety of welding techniques and applications, it exposes students to the multitude of career possibilities in welding and manufacturing in general. In a country where manufacturers are facing increasing work shortages, such exposure at the high school level is invaluable.
"As a vocational department, we're constantly justifying why we're just as important as math, science and English," says Lawson. "And so many of the core teachers are surprised when they find out we teach math. We're constantly dealing with angles and geometry. They don't realize this because they see welding on TV and they think you give some guy a rod and a helmet, and he puts things together. It's so much more than that. You can be successful in life in this type of career." MM