Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of River Parishes magazine.
Welding instructor Courtney Branch believes St. John the Baptist Parish will one day be known as the welding capital of the world.
When Branch looks at the welding students at East St. John High School, he sees determination, courage, and the will to succeed. A partnership with Turner Industries and the Associated Builders & Contractors campus in St. Rose gave this group of talented young men access to education and workforce training. Since last fall, they have willingly come to campus on weeknights and even weekends to continue honing their craft.
Kyle Cook, Kenneth Cooke, Roland Glover, Andrew Williams, Germaine Zeno and Julian Serrano are among the students preparing for their structural welding certifications. Although Hurricane Ida threw an unexpected wrench less than a week into their industrial training, the East St. John welders were back on campus on October 4, 2021.
Branch supervises eight other 100 welding students who are learning to become assistants. After spending 18 years working as a welder in factories and refineries, Branch understands that the sky is the limit when it comes to a construction career path.
“The more experience you have, the faster you advance. It is the objective. We try to get them into the industry so they can make money and get into a career. Welding is a very honorable profession,” Branch said. “For me, they’re the best in East St. John’s. They are go-getters. They are really dedicated to trade. They are eager to learn. I’m just happy to be able to help change their lives. If I have been in East St. John for 20 years, I hope and pray that I can continue to receive groups like this.
Preparing young adults for careers while in high school is a win-win situation not only for students, but also for educators and industry professionals invested in their growth. Branch thanks ABC and Turner Industries for making these opportunities available to local students.
Chris Weber, vice president of the ABC New Orleans/Bayou chapter located in St. Rose, said the goal is to encourage students to continue their education.
ABC partners with high schools in the River Parish area, stretching south to Houma and north across the lake.
“We teach good work ethic, safety, housekeeping skills, good attitude, being at work on time. That’s what we build them into, not just welding all the time. We try to make a good employee for the company,” Weber said.
Students can enter the workforce as assistants and earn up to $60,000. By continuing to climb the career ladder, welding can easily open the doors to an annual salary of at least $100,000. Becoming a structural welder is just one step on the way. ABC’s St. Rose campus facilities allow students to learn pipe welding and restrictive welds, all the way to tig/combo welding.
“If you become a tig welder, you will never lack a job. You will find a job wherever you go. As long as you’re a person who shows up and shows up on time, they’ll want you,” Weber said.
According to Weber, many professional welders who got their start at ABC choose to return to campus to share their knowledge with the next generation.
One example is 25-year-old Devin Meyer, who attended the welding program through Hahnville High School in 2012-2013.
Meyer fell in love with welding during his first two weeks at ABC. He considers welding to be a hobby that brings in a lot of money. He was on a construction site a few days after his 18th birthday and he has since received job offers from Britain, Argentina, Mexico and Australia.
However, Meyer chose to work along the river from Baton Rouge to Venice so he could be home with his two young children each night. For the past seven years he has worked as a structural welder, foreman and Certified Welding Instructor.
“By doing this kind of work, you can literally travel anywhere in the world. No matter where you go, you will be recognized for your talent,” Meyer said. “A lot of people think that construction workers are uneducated, but in reality, construction workers can do anything with their hands. People here can build anything you want, from houses to hospitals.
Meyer challenged current welding students to find five friends in East St. John and become mentors to them so the welding program could continue to flourish year after year.
Bryan Gerace of Turner Industries reminded welding students in East St. John that they bring hope to their parents, friends, parish and state. Accompanied by his 6-year-old son, Gerace told high school students that kids today will look to them as mentors in a few years.
During a visit to campus shortly before Christmas, Gerace delivered supplies on behalf of Turner Industries to help students with their job training. In addition to providing materials, Turner also invests in students by covering the welding program registration fee.
“We are an industrial entrepreneur with a strong presence in the surrounding parishes. It makes sense for us to look to the younger generation to bridge this gap. We provide materials because we want to engage with them to try to support their education and training. Welding materials are not cheap. Sometimes that can be a hurdle to overcome,” Gerace said. “Right now there are a lot of people retiring from the construction industry, and it makes sense that new blood is coming.”
Gerace said the soft skills students learn on the ABC campus, including punctuality, communication and safety, will turn them into better employees down the line.
Branch said discipline is another important element.
“I tell them all the time that as soon as you graduate from high school, the real world will want you to be 30 immediately. They won’t want to give you time to grow. You may not have gray hair, but they want you to act like you have gray hair,” Branch said.
East St. John’s vice principal, J. Vincent Brown, is looking forward to seeing welding students announce their job openings at the year-end awards ceremony, the same way students do at the university announce scholarship offers.
“The administration fully supports you in this endeavour,” Brown said. “We value this as much as anything else on campus. We’re trying to build a pool of capable, smart young men and women who are ready for what Turner and ABC have prepared.