UGA Archway helps launch high school welding program to build local workforce
By Baker Owens
An on-site welding program is helping Thomson High School students prepare for available jobs when they graduate and will help the community meet a growing workforce need.
Twenty-seven students enrolled in the welding program, which began in the fall of 2019 after community leaders, including representatives from the school system, the local chamber of commerce and the UGA Archway Partnership, recognized the need to begin the training in high school to meet a growing shortage of skilled workers in the region.
Kerry Bridges, area manager for Georgia Power and a member of the McDuffie-Thomson Archway Partnership executive committee, asked the Georgia Power Foundation to support the new program.
“The foundation board saw that because of Fort Gordon, Savannah River Site and Plant Vogtle all in this area, there was tremendous value in this project, and they decided to support it to the tune of $100,000,” Bridges said.
Those three projects alone will employ thousands of welders and other skilled positions both during construction and in permanent, maintenance-type positions.
“We recently had a large industry move to town, Standard Iron, that had several welding positions needing to be filled,” said Debbie Jones, executive director and CEO of the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce. “Also, Thomson Two State Construction continues to stay on the lookout for qualified workers to fill vacancies at their plant.”
The expansion of Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle, about an hour away in Waynesboro, Georgia, also increases the need for skilled workers in the region.
“It made sense that we bring this pathway into the school, but not without the help of funding partners, Georgia Power and Jefferson Energy Cooperative,” Jones said. “We wanted to be able to expose the students to welding early, so they could obtain their certification shortly after high school and move into a well-paying career.”
The welder shortage is part of a bigger economic issue across the country. One of the most consistent complaints economic developers hear from industry is a lack of qualified employees. According to the American Welding Society, the average age for welders is 55 and fewer than 20 percent are under the age of 35.
Thomson High School’s graduation rate is 82.2 percent, the state average. About 55 percent of its graduates enroll in a technical college, or a four-year college or university within 12 months of graduation, according to the Georgia Governor’s Office of School Achievement. Statewide, about 62 percent of high school graduates go on to postsecondary education within a year.
The high school graduates who forego postsecondary education are a key population for these jobs.