Acworth-based welding school sees continued growth 10 years on
Feb. 9—For Whitney Foyer, the start of her 14 weeks at the Georgia Trade School in Acworth are best encapsulated by one word: fun.
“My first week of school here, I was legitimately laughing in my booth, because I was having so much fun,” Foyer said.
The 25-year-old from Indianapolis, Indiana, moved to Georgia three years ago in search of a fresh start.
With the help of a scholarship from Mike Rowe, known for hosting the reality TV show “Dirty Jobs,” and a grant from P.E.O. International, which helps support women in their educational pursuits, Foyer was able to pay the full $10,750 tuition at GTS, where she started in September 2022, becoming a certified welder in less than four months.
GTS has 1,200 graduates across 20 states. Graduates have worked on such projects as Truist Park, The Battery Atlanta, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, multiple airports, the hit show “Stranger Things” and Tyler Perry Studios productions, among other film and television sets, said Ryan Blythe, the school’s founder and owner.
Blythe said the school is now graduating around 225 welders annually.
A decade of growth
GTS, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2022, is a welding school with two full-time classes, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, and a part-time night class geared toward older adults, all aimed at training and graduating certified welders who go on to high-demand, good-paying welding jobs.
Based in Kennesaw from 2012-17, the school is now in Acworth, where its hands-on program starts students, many of whom come straight out of high school, welding on the first day of the program.
“They can come here with literally no knowledge and within 14 weeks, they can be making good money as a welder,” GTS instructor Dalton Emory told the MDJ.
One recent afternoon, the welding lab at GTS was a flurry of activity, with welders at various stages in their education hard at work in their booths.
Emory touted the school’s student-to-teacher ratio, noting that there are four to five instructors for about 30 students at any time.
“We get a lot of one-on-one time with them, we get to really kind of know them, and help them not just with welding,” Emory said. “A lot of these kids are going to be getting their first job, they come in here having been playing video games, and then in 14 weeks they can have a legitimate beginning of a career in welding.”
Emory added that GTS’s program length and hands-on training from the start set it apart from technical school welding programs, which can take a couple of years to complete.
The end goal of the program, of course, is jobs for its graduates. The demand for welding jobs is “astronomical” and will remain so throughout Georgia and across the U.S., said Scot McKneely, a GTS certified welding instructor who works on student recruitment and job placement.
“The market is so good that these kids literally, probably their last week here, they can just about solidify a job,” McKneely said.
Kyle Lockwood, another certified instructor at the school, said GTS does quarterly job fairs to connect anywhere from 20 to 30 prospective employers with the school’s students.
“They trust, just by knowing that these students came through our program, they trust that they’ll be ready for the job at hand,” Lockwood said.
McKneely will sit down with graduating students, ask them about their favorite parts of the program and preferred welding processes and from there, determine a list of around 10 employers for graduates to check out.
“There’s lots of options for these guys and girls that come through here,” he said.
McKneely said COVID-19 did little to interrupt the GTS operation, recalling that things seemed to actually pick up for the school in the couple of months after the pandemic shut down most Georgia businesses.
“Welders are essential to just about everything you see,” McKneely said.
Positive trajectory for GTS grads
The demand for a spot at GTS, and the program’s growth, has reflected the opportunities available in the welding industry.
When McKneely arrived at GTS over seven years ago, the school was serving between 30 and 45 students, he said. Now, 90 students attend classes at GTS every day, and the school’s waitlist when it moved to Acworth in 2017 was still anywhere from six to eight months long.
“Now we’re sitting a little bit better, mostly maybe two to three months on a wait,” McKneely said.
McKneely is also responsible for the school’s recruiting, and that means traveling to high schools around the state in search of young people ready to get right into the trade after graduation.
“You don’t see our commercials on TV, we don’t have billboards, this and that, we just get out there, and a lot of these kids come here by word of mouth,” he said.
McKneely said in recent years, he has been received better by administrators, teachers and counselors who seem to recognize the boom in trades in the U.S., and the demand for more skilled workers that comes with it.
And the need for new welders is certainly there: The average age of welders across the U.S. ranges from 55 to 65, and there is an ever-growing need to increase aging workers with young, well-trained successors, he said.
Blythe noted the school is fully independent and “has never cost taxpayers a dime.”
Blythe also said GTS has seen a significant jump in female students since the pandemic.
“It’s not as intimidating as people may think” Foyer said. “I still get comments. It’s typically the older generation, they’re so used to men” in the industry, she said. “It’s so few and far between.”
Her time at GTS reminded Foyer that college is not for everyone, and certainly not necessary for being successful in one’s career.
Foyer’s GTS experience also allowed her to be her inquisitive self — it is a place where questions are welcomed and encouraged, from working in the lab to reading blueprints and learning math in the classroom.
“My favorite part has probably been the instructors,” Foyer said. “I’ve been able to learn so much from them.”
- Posted by Mamoon Rashid
- On March 13, 2023
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