BELLE GLADE — A group of high school students is getting a jump-start on training for a high-demand welding career, thanks to an initiative launched at Palm Beach State College (PBSC) in Belle Glade.
In coordination with the Palm Beach County School District, the first cohort of dual-enrollment welding students got underway in fall 2017, and they are nearing the end of their first year in the program. Business, school, and community partners saw the students demonstrate their knowledge and skills on Monday, May 7, at the Technical Education Center on the Belle Glade campus.
While high school students typically dual enroll at PBSC to pursue an Associate in Arts transfer degree, the College created this opportunity in the Glades region for those who want to go directly into a trade career.
“It’s great to see their enthusiasm for the program and for the skills that they’re learning,” said Dr. Gloria McAllister, program director for Postsecondary Adult Vocational certificate programs on the Belle Glade campus. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to develop their skills early.”
Dr. Roy Vargas, dean of academic affairs for the Belle Glade and Loxahatchee Groves campuses, thinks the initiative has strong potential given the response of business partners to the evening welding program for adults on the Belle Glade campus. Some companies have even created a special job category to facilitate hiring program graduates.
“There’s a need for more employees with these particular skills, and the College has been investing in expanding opportunities,” Vargas said. “The College’s collaboration with industry will open the door to jobs for these new students who are going to graduate from high school with the welding certificate. Our goal is to provide a great workforce for this area.”
Learning in the I-beam Playground: In this initial year, the students began with the “core” or pre-welding skills before training in basic welding techniques. They focused on applied math skills and material science, how to operate power tools and machinery to prepare surfaces for welding, and most importantly, job safety.
Students get hands-on experience in a lab that replicates an authentic welding environment, right down to the steel, which is why the lab is dubbed the “I-beam Playground.”
“It’s set up like a real job site, with fabrication and installation areas, so that when students go into the field, nothing is strange to them. They can make the connection to something they did in class,” said Anton Pastuszak, lead welding instructor who also oversees the evening welding program.
“Steel is very expensive,” McAllister notes, “and the I-beam Playground is unique in the state because nobody can afford this level of steel. We can’t either, but because of Anton’s connections with industry partners, he’s able to get the steel donated to the College and even transports it here on his trailer.”
Next school year, the incoming cohort is expected to grow to 20, the maximum allowed. High school students who start the welding program in their sophomore year and continue through their senior year can successfully complete the program and receive a PSAV certificate along with their high school diploma. In addition, students earn three levels of certifications from the highly respected National Center for Construction Education and Research. Those who don’t complete the PSAV program while in high school may come back to the program as adults and finish up.
“This program puts the students ahead,” said Dr. Peter Barbatis, vice president of student services and enrollment management. “As a college, we’re very excited about the opportunity to offer vocational education to high school students, which leads to college and industry credentials and direct entry into the workforce.”
Pastuszak agrees that the students will be workforce ready. “Even now, if a company were to come out they would realize that the students know exactly what an embed is, they know what an angle clip is, they know bolted connections, coping a beam, welding down decking, plumbing columns, everything. What we are teaching the students is exactly what the industry needs.”
Two students eager to fill those jobs are Kerry Mullins, Jr. and D’aujalonne Scarlett, sophomores at Pahokee High School. Both gave a shout out to Pastuszak for giving them the opportunity.
“He told us since day one that this was one of the most in-demand jobs in the world, but it’s also one of the most dangerous,” Scarlett said. “Ever since he told us that, we took it seriously; we had to be determined and make sure we do what we should do.”
“I know this is a very demanding job,” Mullins added. “But we’re going to pull through it. I’d like to stay here for the next two years and start my career as a welder.”
Serving 49,000 students annually, Palm Beach State College is the largest institution of higher education in Palm Beach County, providing bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, professional certificates, career training and lifelong learning. Established in 1933 as Florida’s first public community college, Palm Beach State offers more than 130 programs of study at locations in Lake Worth, Boca Raton, Palm Beach Gardens, Belle Glade and Loxahatchee Groves.