Typically, the educational track for a career in welding, or any other trade for that matter, begins at a post-secondary technical school or career center. And more often than not, it’s treated as an alternative to pursuing a traditional four-year undergrad degree. At Columbia-Montour Area Vocational-Technical School (CMVT), however, the approach is a tad different.
For 50 years, CMVT, a comprehensive public high school in northeast Pennsylvania, has educated youth about the career potentials of 17 different trades. Those trades include welding, machining, automotive repair, food service, cosmetology and carpentry, among several others.
Tim Carr, co-op/placement coordinator at CMVT, has dedicated much of his career to fostering interest and education in the trades within the youth of Pennsylvania. In fact, he’s worked at the school for 31 years, helping students land positions in the field of study they’ve chosen for themselves.
Carr says that for the 650 students who choose to attend CMVT each year, education in the trades begins in the 9th grade. During their first year, students enter an exploratory program where they are given the opportunity to learn about four areas of study, chosen from the school’s 17 offerings. The exploratory program is balanced with study in traditional academic courses, such as English, math and science.
“Each day, the student has half a day of academics and half a day of a trade,” Carr explains. “Once they make their final selection at the start of 10th grade, they will be in that same program for the next three years for half a day. By the time the students enter their senior year, they are ready to enter a paid work-study program. My job is to facilitate them getting out into the work world.”
Students are made aware of CMVT through a team of dedicated counselors and a rotating group of instructors and academic teachers that visit middle schools and host open houses. The school is so popular that typically there is a waiting list for enrollment. The criteria for acceptance includes overall grades and attendance records.
In regard to the welding program, students can earn American Welding Society (AWS) education certificates. Overall, the program is aligned with the AWS and its credentialing system.
“In addition to being tested on a variety of welding processes, some students also take certification tests for specific welds depending on the job they might be placed in, such as an AWS D11 structural welding certificate,” Carr says. “Many of the students have a credential by the time they leave the welding program or shortly thereafter, and additionally, most end up with 1,500 hours of training under their belts. That ultimately equates to students having their pick of jobs after graduation.”
The manufacturing area in and around Bloomsburg where CMVT is located is incredibly strong. And those companies are quite fortunate to have such a robust pool of potential workers from which to pick.
Many of the students get a job in their senior year or even at the end of the junior year and work throughout the summer. The jobs start at around $11 per hour up to the mid-teens and are typically part time. If a student is 18 years old, they can start a full shift at 1 p.m. during the school week, but if they’re younger than that, child labor laws apply as to how many hours they can work.
“My role is to fit the students with jobs that align with the career they’ve chosen,” Carr says. “And I make sure that the company doesn’t exploit the student but continues to educate and train them while they’re on the job. Most companies are very willing to do this to have the opportunity to get a dependable young person to come to work every day.”
In addition to getting quality candidates for open positions, local manufacturers and fabricators also benefit from CMVT by getting candidates that don’t need much new-hire training. Several companies work with the school to specify the type of welding skills they’re looking for.
“This allows a company to really craft the type of workers that they need,” Carr says. “We benefit from those relationships, too, considering our local businesses donate materials and even equipment. As an example, a couple of stainless steel shops give us skids of material, such as 20-gauge or 14-gauge material – the same material that their current employees work with.”
In terms of equipment, companies are accustomed to calling the school when they’re making upgrades to their welding equipment. Conversations in that regard are intended to inform the school of these new equipment investments to ensure students are familiar with the new welders. It’s not uncommon for a company to donate funds to help the school acquire that same equipment.
Local businesses work with a variety of materials and equipment and represent a range of industries, including institutional kitchen manufacturing, pharmaceutical equipment production and tractor trailer manufacturing.
“I have standing orders, so to speak, with all of these companies,” Carr says. “One place needs a MIG welder, the next one wants a TIG welder. There are requests for someone that can operate an orbital welder or handle thick plate. Overall, there are a lot of opportunities for our students.”
One of the big selling points for CMVT is the price: it’s free. It’s a public school, so there is no tuition to worry about and the only items the students need to purchase are their preferred welding jackets and helmets. As many know, traditional post-high school trade schools can cost up to $20,000 per year. At CMVT, students graduate with close to the equivalent hours that they would have logged in at a trade school – and at a younger age and with no cost.
“The next big kicker is that instead of spending two years earning and paying for a trade degree, our students spend their first two years after high school working at a job making on average about $25,000 to $40,000 a year,” Carr says. “Compared to the student that went to a trade school for two years at $20,000 per year, our high school graduate with a welding certificate and high school diploma and has already earned at least $50,000.”
In addition to going straight into the workforce after high school, a high percentage of CMVT graduates pursue a post-secondary school degree in a field related to their chosen trade. As an example, drafting students could acquire an engineering degree, a welding student could choose to earn an associate’s degree in welding or enroll in CWI training, and almost any student could go after an advanced degree to land a management position. After all, they already have a firm understanding of their industry.
“This gives them a solid basis to establish a great career,” Carr says. “Not many students change majors once they get to college. They already know that they wanted this trade or, at the very least, they know that it will be a good part-time job to work while they go to college to pursue something else. It’s a good foundation for them to build off of.”
Overall, Carr says his job is incredibly fulfilling. The thousands of students that have roamed CMVT’s halls have quickly been brought up to speed about what a career in the trades can look like. And thanks to that thorough understanding, CMVT students are motivated to succeed.
“The thing that makes us so successful are the good students we get and the excellent support that we get from the area, including parents and businesses,” Carr concludes. “Just as they are motivated to succeed, we are inspired to help them along their journey.”