TCSG and GNTC bring mobile welding lab to Prison

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Since the middle of June, a dozen Floyd County Prison (FCP) offenders have been working in the Technical College System of Georgia’s (TCSG) mobile welding lab every other day to obtain welding certifications, which they will be able to use for employment once they leave the facility. 

“After the first week of September, these students will be fully certified in shield metal arc and flux core welding,” said TCSG welding instructor Scott Edison. “Once released, these guys will be able to start work as welders immediately.”

To the students, the training is invaluable since many do not have any education past a GED® diploma or high school diploma said Christopher Brookins, an offender and student of the class. Brookins will be released in October and is looking forward to taking his welding certifications with him. 

“Some of us have never had a job,” he said. “Now we can make something of ourselves once we leave.”

The prison has two groups of offenders who meet every other morning or afternoon to practice their welding techniques in the TCSG mobile welding lab located on prison grounds. The mobile lab comes outfitted with all of the equipment found in a technical college welding lab. 

Edison said this is his sixth class held at a correctional facility and can recall many success stories from the offenders he trained in the program. Many did not have any experience working with their hands and had no clue how to use a welding iron, but picked it up quickly. 

“We encourage them not to waste this opportunity,” Edison said. “They end up not only enjoying it but building a future for themselves that includes a well-paying job.”

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the average hourly pay for welders in Northwest Georgia is $17.45 as of 2019. The industry is also seeing growth coupled with a wave of retirements said Edison. The American Welding Society estimates half a million welding jobs will be available nationwide by 2022.

Sarin Kon practices his welding techniques after class at the Floyd County Prison. By early September, Kon and 11 other offenders will be fully certified in shield metal arc and flux core welding.
Sarin Kon practices his welding techniques after class at the Floyd County Prison. By early September, Kon and 11 other offenders will be fully certified in shield metal arc and flux core welding.

“As this urgent need for welders continues to grow, we at GNTC Economic Development view this training program as a small but impactful way to combat the demand,” said Kim Crowe, Georgia Northwestern Technical College director of Economic Development. “We wanted to offer this training to individuals who are ready to re-enter the workforce equipped with industry recognized certifications.”

“This is going to keep us from coming back into the system,” said offender and student Sarin Kon. “I’m learning a lot about myself through this and I find myself wanting to succeed in this training.”

Kon described how the course also teaches soft skills, including scheduling, prioritizing, self-motivation and good habits. Kon said going through this course is making him a better person. He and Brookins say in-between classes and their detail work, a group of students will get together to practice their new skills in the metal shop.  

One project the group has worked on in their free time is a wood and charcoal smoker, built using sheets of metal. It is something they are very proud of said Mike Long, FCP warden. Long often takes the smoker to welding employers to display what the offenders can do because of their training. 

The prison has a Work Release Center, which assists this population in finding meaningful employment while at the center, said Betty Dean, deputy warden of care and treatment at Floyd County Corrections. Offenders will keep these jobs upon release from the facility she said. 

“The welding graduates who meet the criteria to enter the center will have an outstanding opportunity finding welding jobs in this community as well as the communities they may return to after being released,” Dean said. “My hope is more employers in the area will partner with us in hiring employable skilled offenders.”

Currently, Steel King Industries, Inc., F&P Georgia and Advanced Steel Technology are partnering with Floyd County Corrections to hire certified welders. If hired, the new employees will have to prove they are still proficient in welding said Edison. This is a requirement for any welding job and students who enter the workforce should have no difficulty with demonstrating welding skills on the job. Those who wait may have to brush up on their skills before being allowed on-site he said. 

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a blessing this is,” said offender and student Clarence Leonard. “I can get a stable job and support my family.”

According to Leonard and the other students, involvement in the program has been widespread in Floyd County Prison. Other offenders often drop by their cells and watch them go over course material. Prison administrators will also bring welding students things to repair, which they do in their spare time. According to Long, interest in the program has exploded.

How it came about

The welding classes at Floyd County Prison were made possible through partnerships at both the state and local level said Stephanie Scearce, GNTC vice president of Economic Development. After discussions with the prison, Scearce and her team at GNTC developed the welding program offered at the prison before working to secure funding. 

“It’s been a year and a half in the making but we finally made it, pandemic and all,” Scearce said. “We have heard about other technical colleges doing something similar, and TCSG provides the labs. GNTC would like to continue offering this program on an annual basis in partnership with the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission Workforce Investment Board.”

Next, Scearce and her team went before the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission (NWGRC) Workforce Investment Board to apply and successfully award funding for the course. In addition, they also submitted an application to TCSG to secure one of their mobile welding labs. Once the current class is complete, the lab will return to TCSG and Scearce will approach NWGRC again to request funding to train another cohort of inmates if there is expressed interest from the prison.

“After touring the training at the prison, I was moved by the men’s respect and dedication to learning a new technical skill that will earn them employment upon parole,” said Scearce. “When the time comes, I know these men will be equipped to fulfill high demand jobs within manufacturing that are extremely hard to fill and keep filled.” 

According to Dean and Long, programs that allow prisoners to further their skills while incarcerated benefit both the prison and the former offenders long term. Departed prisoners are less likely to go back into the system once they have marketable skills, Long said. The FCP warden gave several examples of offenders who have earned their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) while in Floyd County Corrections and now have careers in commercial truck driving. 

Money we spend on these types of programs saves us on extra security and offender care in the long run,” he said. “In my experience, when you break the chain of incarceration it makes a difference to the former offenders and their families. Their children are less likely to wind up in the system if their parents are home and have a good job.”

Since the welding class came to the prison, Long has received stacks of letters from offenders at other prisons asking for a transfer to the Floyd County Prison. Dean said she also gets daily phone calls regarding transfers, and within her own facility she has close to 50 offenders requesting placement in the next welding class when it comes back to the prison. In the meantime, Long and Dean said they will keep working with offenders to make sure they are fully equipped to start a new life through the various programs and their in-house career center.

Georgia Northwestern Technical College provides quality workforce education to the citizens of Northwest Georgia. Students have the opportunity to earn an associate degree, diploma, or a certificate in business, health, industrial, or public service career paths. This past year, 12,454 people benefited from GNTC’s credit and noncredit programs. With an annual credit enrollment of 7,730 students, GNTC is the largest college in Northwest Georgia. GNTC has an additional enrollment of 4,724 people through adult education, continuing education, business and industry training, and Georgia Quick Start. GNTC is a unit of the Technical College System of Georgia and an Equal Opportunity Institution.

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