SALISBURY, N.C. – The Rowan-Cabarrus Community College welding program produced the first graduating class when the institution opened in 1963. Since then, both the program and the College itself have been committed to changing with the times to meet the needs of the job market and industry.

Today’s welding students, and the opportunities available to them, look different than ever before with a resurgence of interest in trade jobs that are in high demand and pay well. More women are entering the field, and welding processes now incorporate advanced technology.

“We are experiencing a strong increase in interest in welding as a career,” said Rowan-Cabarrus Welding Program Chair Brandon Hoffner, who is a 2005 graduate of the Rowan-Cabarrus program. “It’s a lost art that is coming back. The need is there, and people are realizing it.”

Rowan-Cabarrus was one of only eight national recipients of the 2019 Welding Workforce Grant from the American Welding Society, which provided $25,000 that the College used to purchase high-tech virtual welding equipment. As technology enters the industry, upgrades are needed to educate students to perform 21st century jobs.

The welding department also has met the requirements to be a Lincoln Electric certified LEEPS program and offers NC3 certification through the National Coalition of Certification Centers.

“Our program is not about sitting in a welding booth for three or four hours to get a grade on something,” Hoffner said. “This is about giving our students practical knowledge and hands-on training to prepare them for a good job. Our biggest problem right now is that we need more space to develop and expand the curriculum. Welding technology is changing at a fast pace, with computerized equipment and robotics. It takes the latest equipment to train the best graduates.”

Welding enrollment spiked when Pillowtex suddenly shut down operations in 2003 and has continued to increase as trade job openings have become more plentiful and more lucrative.

The Rowan-Cabarrus program features classroom and lab instruction, including three levels of gas tungsten arc welding, three levels of shielded metal arc welding, mig plate welding and orbital welding, with plans to incorporate flux cored arc welding, a process which is in high demand.

In addition to the welding facilities on the Rowan-Cabarrus North Campus in Salisbury, A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis has partnered with the College for the past four years to offer welding stations on its campus. Students who take welding courses there are considered part-time Rowan-Cabarrus students in the Career & College Promise dual enrollment program and receive college credits for course completion.

The College regularly hosts welding department open houses, giving high school students from across Rowan and Cabarrus counties a chance to learn about welding careers and get a hands-on feel for the process. The next open house is scheduled for March 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. on the College’s North Campus.

“Welding jobs can pay more than $100,000 a year, depending on the type of work you’re doing and where you’re located,” Hoffner said, adding that many Rowan-Cabarrus welding graduates work locally at manufacturing plants, NASCAR shops and fabrication shops, and others have landed jobs across the country. “We have a good track record of sending businesses well-trained workers.”

The American Welding Society predicts that by 2024, 400,000 jobs will be available in the United States for qualified welders.

“Our thriving, diverse welding program is a great example of our commitment to preparing our citizens for sustainable careers and contributing to the region’s workforce needs and economic development,” said Dr. Carol S. Spalding, president of Rowan-Cabarrus. “Nothing is more important to us than imparting the skills that help people change their lives for the better.”

After her husband passed away in April of 2003 and she was laid off from her job at Pillowtex the following June, Lori Safrit wasn’t sure where to turn, but knew she needed a good job to continue to pay the bills and take care of her three young daughters.

She turned to Rowan-Cabarrus Community College for a new career, after having worked only in textiles and the food industry, and decided to earn her degree in welding. Today, she is a full-time welding instructor at the College and is seeing more women following her lead.

“I wanted to show my daughters that, through perseverance and hard work, you can make it in life,” Safrit said. “I know my job is worthwhile when I get students with the fire and passion to be good welders. I enjoy teaching all students, but I have to admit I love it when I get females in my classes. They make really good welders and are very detail-oriented.”

Grace Peters is one of those female students. Since she loves to work with her hands and knew that a desk job was not for her, she decided to pursue an associate degree in welding at Rowan-Cabarrus since it is close to her China Grove home and offers many clubs and extracurricular opportunities. This year, she was one of seven students selected for the prestigious Ambassadors program, in which she serves as an official representative of Rowan-Cabarrus both on campus and in the community.

“Being a female in a male-dominated field is very different from what I expected – I thought I would have a hard time feeling like a part of the team, but that is not the case,” Peters said. “The program has been nothing less than accepting and helpful.”

“I had never welded before entering Rowan-Cabarrus and honestly didn’t know the first thing about it,” she said. “Now I know how to weld in many forms. I would like to get a job in a fabrication shop and, eventually, own my own business. I am happy and excited for what is to come.”