Donning visors and wielding virtual welding torches, a roomful of young adults took their first steps down a potential career path Friday.
"I've got a passion for welding," said Victor Daniels, a recent North Callaway High School graduate.
These students are part of the Callaway Chamber of Commerce's first welding class for youths.
Callaway County desperately needs welders, chamber Executive Director Tamara Tateosian said. That's why, in 2018, the Missouri Division of Workforce Development chose the county as its launch site for the Central Missouri Welding Apprenticeship Project. A $341,204 grant helped purchase several virtual welding machines, which the chamber has since used to train adult welders.
But Tateosian felt the county could be doing more with those machines.
With the help of a $103,400 grant from the Central Region Workforce Development Board, the chamber and Fulton Missouri Job Center have launched a new welding program targeted at youths aged 18-24 who face barriers to employment. The first batch of participants started classes last week.
"Our goal is for youth to learn some hard and soft work skills they can use for obtaining employment, possibly turning into long-term employment or a career," said Melanie Stotler, a career consultant for the Missouri Job Center and Central Ozarks Private Industry Council.
Tateosian said the chamber wanted to make sure these classes are accessible to all students, regardless of income. Students don't pay to take these classes. Instead, they get paid, to the tune of $10 an hour. They also earn rewards as they reach various levels in the program, such as maintaining perfect attendance, graduating high school or hitting 60 hours of training.
Tateosian said the program's developers didn't want low-income students to have to choose between attending classes or picking up part-time work to help support themselves or their families. Classes take place Friday evening and most of Saturday.
"That (money) can be life changing for an 18-year-old," Tateosian said.
After completing the 60-hour initial training, students will go to one of several area employers that has partnered with the program for 240 hours of experience, paid at $9.50 per hour.
After that, the hope is those employers will hire high-performing students outright or offer on-the-job training paid at the usual welder's rate. The program will reimburse employers for up to 50 percent of on-the-job training costs, Stotler said.
Thomas Schwartze, co-chair and instructor of State Technical College's welding program, is teaching the class.
"I started the welding program down in Linn about 10 years ago, and I've been welding since 1969," Schwartze said.
He told the class his methods are hands-on — someone might learn welding from a lecture or a video, but "if you put your hands on it and burn the hell out of yourself, you will learn what's hot, what's not and why," he joked. He hopes by the time students finish their 60 hours of instruction, they'll be competent welders ready to be an asset to their employer.
Schwartze said times have changed since he started as a welder.
"Back several years ago, the whole country was pushing for four-year degrees," he said. "They're starting to realize we're running out of people who work with their hands. We're about 450,000 welders short, according to the American Welder Society."
The 10 or so students in Schwartze's class seemed eager to help make up that deficit.
"My cousin's husband is a welder and a good one," Daniels said. "Living in the country, it's something that's handy."
Anna Raines was the sole female participant in the first class.
"I quit my job recently and needed to do something to get financially stable for my daughter and me," she said.
An artist by schooling, Raines hopes her creativity will be an asset in the class.
Hunter Middleton, meanwhile, is a freelance web developer trying welding on a whim.
"This program really works with my schedule, since it's Fridays and Saturdays," he said. "I saw an opportunity to learn a new trade."
As this is a newly developed program, this class will serve as something of a trial run, Stotler said.
"If all goes well and we have the funding, our goal is to have at least two more trainings by the end of the summer," Stotler added.
To learn more about the program or sign up, call 573-642-7760.