America needs more welders — and soon. Baby boomers with the skill are retiring and not enough young people are replacing them.
In the '80s, when Flashdance brought us Alex the welding woman who really wanted to be a ballet dancer, America had well over half a million welders. Welding was hot. Today, there are about 40 percent fewer welders.
The American Welding Society estimates there will be a shortage of nearly 300,000 welding-related positions by 2020.
Jeremy Worley, who teaches welding at a technical college in north Georgia, says the demand for welders is at a level that is growing "quicker than we can get them out."
So Worley will teach welding to anyone at any age, anywhere, including inside Walker State Prison. As part of its ongoing prison reform, Georgia decided to give inmates access to heavy tools and blowtorches so they can get a welding certificate.
Christopher Peeples, 26, is at the end of a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery when he was barely 17.
"If it's an opportunity for me to dive into welding and they say I have a job here, I'm going to say, 'That's me,' " Peeples says.
John Turner is an alumnus of the prison welding program, who describes himself as "a very good welder." He got out last month and had three job offers.
"One of the other prospects was in Cherokee County and it was just too far to travel, but he was offering $50,000 a year with a company truck," he says.
Turner took less pay for a job closer to home. His new colleagues know he has a prison record, but he says they welcomed him.
Gardner Carrick is with the Manufacturing Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based training arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. He supports prison programs like the one in Georgia.
"We certainly would love to see prisoners successfully re-integrate into the community and into the economy. So if welding is a vehicle by which that can happen, then I think that's great to hear," Carrick says.
But that's only a drop in the bucket to fill the demand.
Carrick blames U.S. education policy for the lack of skilled labor. Think No Child Left Behind.
"We made the decision that all kids should go to college and as a result you saw the elimination of a lot of the technical programs at the high school level," he says.
Carrick's group is pushing for more skills training and programs that make manufacturing careers attractive to teenagers. And many companies have started their own apprenticeship programs.