Hardworking students strive to make St. John Parish the ‘Welding Capital of the World’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2022 edition 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, grit and the drive to succeed. A partnership with Turner Industries and the Associated Builders & Contractors campus in St. Rose has given this group of talented young men access to workforce education and training. Beginning last fall, they willingly came to campus on weeknights and even weekends to continue perfecting their craft.

Kyle Cook, Kenneth Cooke, Roland Glover, Andrew Williams, Germaine Zeno and Julian Serrano are among the students working toward their structural welding certifications. Though Hurricane Ida threw an unexpected wrench less than one week into their industry training, the East St. John welders were back on campus by October 4, 2021.

Branch oversees another eight students in welding 100 who are learning how to become helpers. After spending 18 years working as a welder in plants and refineries, Branch understands that the sky is the limit when it comes to a career path in the construction field.

“The more experience you have, the faster you move. That’s the objective. We’re trying to get them into the industry so they can make some money and get started on a career path. Welding is a very honorable trade,” Branch said. “To me, these are East St. John’s finest. They are go-getters. They are really dedicated to the trade. They’re eager to learn. I’m just happy to be able to help change their lives. If I’m at East St. John for 20 years, I hope and pray I can continue getting groups like this.”

Getting young adults career-ready while in high school is a win-win not only for students, but for the educators and industry professionals invested in their growth. Branch credits ABC and Turner Industries for making these opportunities accessible 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 across the River Parish area, extending south to Houma and north across the lake.

“We’re teaching good work ethic, safety, working on skills of housekeeping, good attitude, being at work on time. That’s what we are embedding them to, not just welding all the time. We’re trying to make a good employee for the company,” Weber said.

Students can enter the workforce as a helper, making up to $60,000. By continuing to climb the career ladder, welding can easily open doors to an annual salary of at least $100,000. Becoming a structural welder is only one stop on the journey. The facilities at ABC’s St. Rose campus allow students to learn pipe welding and restrictive welds, building up to tig/combo welding.

“If you become a tig welder, you’ll never want for a job. You’ll find a job any place you go. As long as you’re a person who performs and shows up on time, they’ll want you,” Weber said.

According to Weber, many professional welders who got their start at ABC opt to return to the campus to share their knowledge with the next generation.

One example is 25-year-old Devin Meyer, who participated in the welding program through Hahnville High School in 2012-2013.

Meyer fell in love with welding within his first two weeks of classes at ABC. He considers welding to be a hobby that just so happens to pay a lot of money. He was on a job site days after his 18th birthday, and he has since received job offers from Great Britain, Argentina, Mexico and Australia.

However, Meyer chooses to work along the river from Baton Rouge to Venice so he can be home with his two young children each night. Over the past seven years, he has worked as a structural welder, a foreman and a certified welding instructor.

“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 all reality, construction workers can do anything with their hands. The people here can build anything you want, from houses to hospitals.”

Meyer challenged current welding students to find five friends at East St. John and become mentors to them so the welding program can continue to blossom with each passing year.

Bryan Gerace of Turner Industries reminded the East St. John welding students that they are bringing hope to their parents, friends, parish and state. With his 6-year-old son in tow, Gerace told the high schoolers that the children of today will look up to them as mentors in a few short years.

During a campus visit shortly before Christmas, Gerace delivered supplies on behalf of Turner Industries to help students in their career training. In addition to providing materials, Turner also invests in students by covering registration costs for the welding program.

“We are an industrial contractor with a large presence in the surrounding parishes. It makes sense for us to look to the younger generation to bridge that gap. We provide materials because want to make a commitment to them to try to support their education and training. Welding materials aren’t cheap. Sometimes that can be a hurdle to overcome,” Gerace said. “Right now, there are a lot of individuals who are retiring from the construction industry, and it only makes sense for the new blood to come in.”

Gerace said the soft skills students are picking up at the ABC campus, including punctuality, communication and safety, will sharpen them into better employees down the line.

Branch said discipline is another important component.

“I tell them all the time that as soon as you graduate from high school, the real world is going to want you to be 30 years old immediately. They’re not going to want to give you time to grow up. You might not have gray hair, but they want you to act like you have gray hair,” Branch said.

East St. John Assistant Principal J. Vincent Brown looks forward to watching welding students announce their job offers at the end-of-year awards ceremony, similar to how college-bound students announce scholarship offers.

“The administration supports you fully in this endeavor,” Brown said. “We give this just as much importance as we do anything else on campus. We are trying to build a pipeline of skilled, smart young men and women who are ready for what Turner and ABC has prepared.”