Dakota Briscoe first learned welding from his grandfather a couple of years ago.
“I was just working on things, like on our farm,” the North Hall High junior said. “It would be interesting. I’d like to do that for a career.”
Briscoe has just been hired by a local machine shop for his welding skills. He plans to continue that position through his senior year and then attend Lanier Technical College.
He hasn’t placed too much thought in a potential career — “something probably welding or outdoors” — but it seems like welding is a definite pick for the next few years, at least.
School and government officials, as well as employers, have been promoting jobs in the skilled trades as more manufacturing positions open up in Georgia. For example, the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development has created the Go Build Georgia campaign, promoting careers in a variety of trades, like welding and other manufacturing positions.
But a survey done by the consumer finance website WalletHub found the worst entry-level jobs included many manufacturing positions, like “tool and die maker,” “welder” and “floor assembler.”
The WalletHub report was compiled using a list of 109 entry-level jobs, then identifying key factors like immediate opportunities, growth prospects and hardship.
Educators and employers remain steadfast that welding, and other manufacturing jobs, are both plentiful and well-paying.
“Around Gainesville, it’s going to start out anywhere from $10-$13 an hour,” said North Hall High teacher Ronny Turpin. “And then (with more experience) you’re looking, in Gainesville, at $18-$19 an hour.”
Turpin, who has been with North Hall for 16 years and had previously taught at Lanier Technical College, said most of his students remain in the Northeast Georgia area.
The average annual salary of a welder in Georgia is a little more than $35,000, according to May 2013 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s slightly lower in Gainesville, at around $31,000. That average includes all experience levels. And for a family of four, that’s around 133 percent of the 2014 federal poverty guidelines.
Entry-level welders in Georgia make around $11.93 per hour or around $24,800 before taxes; average overall hourly wages are $16.97 or around $35,000.
“You’ll find some areas where they’re making better than that,” Department of Labor spokesman Sam Hall said. “I’m no expert in (welding), but from talking to the people at the technical colleges, there’s a demand and these are considered to be pretty good jobs.”
For perspective, the Go Build Georgia website, aimed at young adults, lists the median hourly wage of a welder at $22.45.
“In the nuclear plants, and that’s just here ... the welders (are) making around $34 an hour,” Turpin said about those niche positions.
But that’s not realistic for an entry-level position, and Turpin said he thinks that’s where the disconnect occurs between employers wooing new talent and the high school students with dollar signs in their eyes.
“We have guest speakers come in and they’ll say the money’s out there at $26 an hour,” he said. “Well, (the students) are expecting, when they head out of here, that’s what they’re going to make.”
Instead, students need to be thinking ahead of how to specialize in their field, and even consider getting into management roles as they move along in their career for further earning potential.
“Your earning potential would be based on your skill level and knowledge,” said Tim McDonald, vice president of economic development for Lanier Technical College. “And then of course, as with any skills, spin-off to that would be going into management or possibly even engineering as a continued career path.”
And it’s a bit of a trade-off. The WalletHub report ranked positions such as an attorney, app developer and market research analyst among its best entry-level jobs. These positions may pay well but typically require a more traditional liberal arts degree, or higher levels of education. The time and money spent earning a bachelor’s degree could otherwise be spent developing the skills needed for certain manufacturing positions.
There’s also something to be said for the unrealistic expectations of a new working generation.
Kubota Manufacturing Chief Administrative Officer Phil Sutton chuckled when asked if younger employees may not understand what is involved as a full-time employee.
“I kind of have been having discussions with educators about setting expectations of the young folks,” he said. “I think that’s really important at first. A lot of young folks haven’t been exposed to these working environments, whether it’s the construction industry or the manufacturing industry, or anything where they’re a little bit shocked by the environment.”
Most companies have oversight in place for safety and cleanliness, but Sutton said some students come out of school used to training in a sanitized, air-conditioned classroom environment. He said he used to work for a ship-building company, and would see people balk at the hot and grimy conditions.
“I think generationally, people moved away somewhat from manufacturing and into more service-related jobs,” he added. “Now that all of these manufacturing jobs are recovering in the U.S., I believe, that now we maybe have lost a generation who had an understanding of what manufacturing jobs were all about.”
The solution, Sutton said, is to not only have academic programs in place but to train students in the actual work environment.
“It’s a lot different from high school,” he said about his welding position. “Everything’s more, I don’t know how to say it, but more in-depth than we learn here. I had to learn a lot more than I’ve been taught. Like, I’m learning as I go.”