Build it and they will come

WEST COLUMBIA, SC --  Most people just drive over bridges. Brookland-Cayce High School welding instructor Laird Thompson marvels at them.


Thompson spent 23 years in the steel fabrication market, working as a welder, fitter, machine operator, superintendent and in other jobs. But it’s the projects he worked on that make him most proud -- from the Congaree River bridge along I-77 in Columbia to football stadiums for the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns, to the aquatics center for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and high rises across the nation.


“To me when I see a stadium on TV that I worked on,  I remember all that went into the project, and how cool it is to see something you have worked on standing, with people all over it,”  said Thompson, whose 15th group of seniors is graduating from Brookland-Cayce High this year.  


It’s that pride and excitement that Thompson instills in his Lexington Two students in welding, which joins together materials, like metals, through heat. And that excitement is growing, with next year’s opening of the new Lexington Two Innovation Center, which will offer a state-of-the-art facility for the district’s college and career readiness programs there.


After the recession in the steel industry in the mid- to late 1980s and the push to steer high school graduates toward four-year academic degrees, there is a shortage today of skilled welders and other trade workers across the United States, according to industry publications.


“In the early ‘90s  we saw construction rebound but we did not have support from our career centers (post-secondary) to help supply craft programs.  The welding industry all but dried up for welders,” Thompson said. The American Welding Society notes the average welding operator is 57 and getting set to retire.


But places like the Lexington Two Innovation Center are working to train welders for the future, whether in traditional careers or in artistic pursuits, like creating one-of-a-kind art pieces or wrought iron works.  


Thompson, who has 60 students in welding programs this school year, said his students have gone on several paths after graduation. Some welders have gone into the military, some are in private industry with structural steel plants, specialty plants and the petroleum industry, while others have gone on to become engineers.


All have benefitted from Lexington Two’s business partnerships with local industries. These businesses advise on the latest technologies and trends for programs and help students with work-based learning opportunities.


“These (CATE) places are doing a great service delivering better-than-entry-level employees,” Thompson said.


One of Thompson’s students, 2015 Brookland-Cayce grad Chris Brant, was a PLTW completer and went on to study engineering at Clemson University, entering as a second-semester freshman after getting a jump in Thompson’s classes. And at the University of South Carolina, Lexington Two has an articulation agreement in the engineering program, allowing students to earn college credit for the course work they complete in an Innovation Center program.


That’s the beauty of the Innovation Center, according to director Joni Coleman.


“Our Career and Technology programs teach our students skills and competencies needed in today's workforce,” Coleman said.  “Through our Advisory Committees, we ensure our instructors and programs are kept up-to-date on trends relevant to their prospective industries.  In several of our programs, our students leave with nationally recognized credentials, which gives them a competitive edge.”


In addition to welding technology, other center offerings include automotive collision repair, automotive technology, carpentry, construction, computer programming, cosmetology and barbering, culinary arts, electricity, firefighting, health science, pre-engineering (PLTW), sports medicine, and web and digital design.   


For Thompson, it’s about passing on pride in a profession to his students.


“A craftsmen's life is to leave behind something that can stand forever,” Thompson said.  “In short, that feeling of accomplishment has no words.”