FORT SMITH, Ark. — With Baby Boomers retiring, the need for workers in skilled trades is growing and a new school in Fort Smith is training the next generation of welders.
Inside American Welding Laboratories at 1103 Wheeler Avenue in Fort Smith, husband and wife team Danny and Angela Cobb are "training America one weld at a time."
"Everything that you look around at is welded from the bridges you drive across every day, the buildings that you work in, the car that you drive. The smartphone that you hold in your hand. The machines that make that phone are welded together. And something has to do that," said Danny Cobb, lead instructor.
Danny has 25 years experience in the welding industry.
"Going into the teaching aspect, I really enjoyed it and knew that I could change lives by doing that," Danny Cobb said.
Angela Cobb is the administrator, running the business behind the scenes. Both understand the need for welders.
"In high school, people were pushed to a college degree and the trades were kind of seen as a lesser thing. So people weren’t pushed into the trades and we’re suffering for it now," Angela Cobb said.
The statistics from the American Welding Society are staggering.
"Welders are actually in high demand. By 2024, we’re going to need over 300,000 welders," she said.
American Welding just started its first classes a few months ago and now has 15 students enrolled as of July 2022. 20-year-old Kendall Willis drives an hour to school every day.
"Being able to do something that not a lot of females do, really. And it’s just about being able to work with my hands," Willis said. "Being in a male-dominant field doesn’t really affect you as much because as long as you’re learning and doing it, you could be better than the men in this field."
She's completed 200 hours of her 960-hour coursework and should be done by early January 2023, with plans to work for a year or two before starting her own business.
She comes from a family of tradespeople. Her grandfather tarred roofs and her father worked in construction. But she says the next generation of men in her family did not choose to get into these fields.
"Their children and grandchildren and stuff are not learning how to be efficient with building and putting things together and working with your hands more. They’re just kind of 'iPad kids,'" Willis said.
22-year-old Martin Pettit is from Sallisaw, Oklahoma. He's completed 40 hours of his 960-hour coursework. He joined the school after helping on the pipelines and watching others weld.
"You can find welding just about anywhere. There’s pretty much jobs anywhere and the money’s great," Pettit said.
Most of the students at American Welding Labs are in their early 20s, working to find direction in life.
"They’ve all graduated high school, wanting to change their career, wanting to change their life from either working in retail or working maybe at a convenience store or being a cook or something," Danny Cobb said. "You come here, you’re going to get the skill, possibly the certifications and then you go to work."
The process is fast with some students on track to finish in 12 weeks, as opposed to a four-year college degree. The school is also partnering with several local manufacturing companies that need employees.
"What we’re doing with them is we’re doing more job-specific training for these companies so that when our students leave, they’re ready to go right to the floor and go right to work for them," Danny Cobb said.
While courses can range from $5,000 to $20,000, there are state, federal and tribal funds available. In fact, so far, only one student has had to pay out of pocket.
"If you think you can’t afford to go to welding school, there are funds out there. There’s financial aid out there for just about everybody," Angela Cobb said.
Danny Cobb says watching his students succeed is very rewarding and the biggest requirement is a strong work ethic.
"You have to be passionate. You have to be willing to put in the work. And you have to be willing to do a little bit extra," he said.
If you're interested in learning more about the programs at American Welding Labs, click here.
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