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It’s a metal world at Chattahoochee Tech

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Welding students get hands-on experience at Chattachoochee Tech. 

Most days at the Jasper Chattahoochee Tech campus, sparks fly in the welding class, which has expanded in the past couple of years and now has 140 students spread between the Jasper and Paulding County campuses.

On a recent tour of the welding classroom here, students were in several booths perfecting their torch handling indoors, while other students were cutting a round pipe in the outdoor area.

Lead welding instructor Jordan Hunter said, “welding is a very, very hot topic right now.” 

Whether the pun was intended or not, what Hunter was referring to is the need for welders across the country.

The latest figures Hunter shared showed a shortage of qualified people needed to fill 400,000 welding jobs. And that is before President Trump’s plans to rebuild America’s infrastructure goes into place.

The welding students at the Pickens and Paulding Chattahoochee Tech campuses are the first line to fill that need. Hunter said that welding and other trade skills have been overlooked by aspiring students, who have been repeatedly told they needed four-year college degrees. The result is a nation with a missing generation of skilled technical employees and this ties into the national news about the poor state of the country’s infrastructure. Welders will be needed to shore up all the bridges across the nation.

Chattahoochee Tech classes are offered in day and night courses to accommodate working schedules as most of the students are already employed and looking to improve their skills. A welding diploma can be earned in one year working full time, but generally takes closer to two years as students accommodate other jobs.

Each welding class can handle up to 20 students and has an instructor and one adjunct student who teaches.

Hunter said the biggest challenge for their graduation rate at the moment is the students are routinely offered $20 per hour jobs if they will forego the rest of their coursework and come straight to work. 

The instructor first learned welding from his grandfather, but has added a technical school degree as well as a full four-year degree to be the teacher and he encourages students to finish the courses.

There is a big difference between a true trained welder and someone “who can stick two pieces of metal together,” Hunter said. Among the additional skills the classes teach are working with different metals. Industry is constantly bringing in new metals and these require different welding techniques. 

The instructor describes welders as “the athletes of industry.” You can train and coach them, but ultimately they have to produce by being able to weld what is needed. “Every time you step up to the plate, you need to produce,” he said. At Chattahoochee Tech, the classes are designed to give theories that allow welders to spot unique situations with the metals and adjust to them.

Relatively new at the campus is an $80,000 robotics welder added as part of an overall $500,000 expansion spent by Chattahoochee Tech to establish welding as a class at the Paulding campus and bring Pickens’ program state of the art, modern equipment.

The robot (automation) welder is similar to what is being used in larger industries now and what is coming to smaller operations. Hunter said the robots are taking welding jobs as the machines never need a break or fail a drug test. He predicts more and more smaller shops will begin using them. The students at Chattahoochee Tech should be ahead of the trends with their experience programming the robot. 

Hunter jokes that a lot people who work on assembly lines with robots are trained with “a green button makes it go and you hit a red button to stop it. Our students will actually know how to program it for different and new jobs.”

In general most of the students come to the Jasper campus from north Cherokee, Pickens and Gilmer counties. They generally work in Cherokee, Dawson or Bartow counties.

Airport Road [Ball Ground] companies draw a lot of the program graduates with the smallest industrial operation there using 10 welders and larger companies like Chart employing dozens of welders. Bartow County’s Trinity Rail, which makes boxcars, and Sigma Thermal, a boiler maker in Woodstock, are other regular employers looking for welders.

“Most of the things being welded in north Georgia are tied to our campus,” Hunter said. “Our graduates are at all the main companies.”

The students in the program are mostly employed adult males. A few women are beginning to join the ranks of welders, but attracting high school students has been tough. The high school graduates are pushed too hard to go to traditional colleges, even though plenty of good paying jobs await tech school graduates. 

With welding and other industrial skills there are plenty of jobs for qualified applicants and they pay well, starting at $18 to more than $20. Compare that to what you can get with a philosophy degree, Hunter said. 

And, he notes that welding is the skill that underlies the growth in this country; the Atlanta skyline is welding; bridges are welding, small jewelry is welding and even a cell phone has welding involved. Most people interact with more than 10,000 welds in a typical day.

“It’s rewarding, you put something together and it works,” he said. “It’s pretty cool what we do. It’s a metal world.”