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An educational pipeline toward welding careers

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Cathy Swindell (left), Central Carolina Community College’s director of industry services, and Linda Shook, chair of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, discuss the new Caterpillar Youth Apprenticeship welding program.

Photo: Katherine McDonald 

In Sanford, N.C., a new welding apprenticeship program for high school students has local officials excited about the potential for economic development.

Last week, education and community leaders launched a partnership among Caterpillar​, Central Carolina Community College (CCCC), Lee County Schools and the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) to establish the apprenticeship. Through the two-year program, selected high school juniors and seniors will earn their high school diploma, college certificate in welding, and NCDOL youth apprenticeship certificate.

Participating students will also receive customized training through the college and Caterpillar, and work part time at the Caterpillar plant. When they complete the program, they will be qualified as entry-level welders, ready to work at Caterpillar or other companies.

“This is an exciting day,” said CCCC President Bud Marchant. “Manufacturing in the USA is back, and Lee County is at the center of that renaissance. This is just the first of the programs we hope to announce.”

Meeting the demand

Welders are in demand, even in the current economic climate. Manufacturing companies moving to new locations often look at the available workforce, especially the number of skilled welders. Caterpillar-Sanford is opening a new fabrication facility in Lee County, bringing Caterpillar jobs from Mexico back to the U.S. It’s also bringing a plan to ensure it has enough skilled workers.

“We recognized that we don’t have a sufficient pipeline of manpower to man our new fabrication plant,” said Julie Ammons, human resources director for Caterpillar-Sanford. “This apprenticeship program ensures that we will have the talent and skills to fill our manpower needs.”

The welding program starts in fall 2012 with 15 students, with 15 more joining the following year. Caterpillar-Sanford will have the second-largest youth apprenticeship program in North Carolina, behind Siemens Energy in Raleigh, according to Charlene Cross, NCDOL coordinator for apprenticeship programs.

In the welding program, in addition to their high school studies, students will spend part of their time three days a week at CCCC learning blueprint reading, workplace safety, and basic stick plate and inert gas welding.

For part of two days a week, students will be at the plant receiving customized training through CCCC and accelerated training through Caterpillar. Students will work with skilled welders and also have paid, part-time welding work at the facility. During the summers, they will work and train at Caterpillar up to 32 hours per week as paid apprentices.

“This is one of the greatest things I’ve seen since coming to Lee County,” said Aaron Fleming, director of career and technical education for Lee County Schools. “Apprenticeships are back.”

Fleming added that, since the welding classes are taught at CCCC, they carry honors program weight, earning students extra points for their grade point average.

McDonald is a writer for Central Carolina Community College​.​​

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