Reanna Gatlin and Jake Simmons attend different high schools and have varying career plans, but they share a passion and affinity for the same trade.
The 18-year-old student welders are among 40 in the pre-professional program at the Limestone County Career Technical Center, which has more than 500 in grades 10-12 enrolled in 15 courses of study.
Gatlin, a senior at East Limestone, and Simmons, a senior at Athens Bible, spent several hours on a Saturday during Career Tech’s open house and SkillsUSA contest earlier this month, competing in a field of a dozen welders, giving welding exhibitions and fielding questions during facility tours.
Moments after Simmons won his third skills medal in three years and first gold, a small audience gathered in the stovetop warm welding workshop, watching as the students donned their heavy safety hoods and gloves and fired up spark-spewing torches for the day’s final demonstration.
Simmons, who started working at Turner Medical Company in Athens earlier this month, is among three welding students participating in cooperative work-study. The co-op program allows high school upperclassmen to attend class part of the day and then report to a career-related job.
Both Gatlin and Simmons are taking dual-enrollment courses at Calhoun Community College, studying for safety and industrial certifications and serving as officers in Career Tech’s SkillsUSA chapter.
Simmons said he plans to be a welder while majoring in aerospace engineering after graduating in May. Gatlin, who said she remains undecided about her college and career goals, plans to intern soon with the Athens-Limestone Counseling Center to gain experience in another potential career field.
“Right now, I’m flip-flopping between majoring in psychology and mechanical engineering,” she said.
Classroom to career
Barry Berryhill, a CTC welding instructor who also teaches at Calhoun, said he has a former student who graduated last year and is working his way through college. He said rather than be limited to minimum wage options, the teenager used his Career Tech credentials and training to land a welding job that pays $18 an hour.
Berryhill said the perception that career and technical classes are for students without other options is slowly slipping away as students and their parents realize the benefits of graduating from high school with marketable skills.
Benefits include earning professional certifications while still in high school — both Gatlin and Simmons are working on certifications without having to pay the steep fees because they are Career Tech students — and using the classes as either a precursor to college or a pipeline to finding steady and often lucrative employment after high school.
Limestone school officials have announced the school is adding five new programs in which students can obtain training to become a teacher, paramedic, industrial systems technician, diesel mechanic, corrections officer or a firefighter, among other career fields.
During last month’s press conference trumpeting the new curriculum and grant money to purchase equipment, Limestone Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk characterized Career Tech classes as a pathway for “students to go pro.”
Berryhill said he encourages graduating seniors to get a college degree even if they can find immediate employment in their chosen field. But as a skills-based instructor, he said his primary objective is to ensure students are fully prepared to enter the workforce.
“I’m here not necessarily to get kids to (the postsecondary level) — I’m here to get them ready for a job,” he said.