John, 29, was born in Tampa, Florida, but his dad was in the military, so he’s lived in 20 different states. John graduated from the Professional Welder with Pipefitting program at the Tulsa Welding School, Jacksonville campus, in September 2016.
Thanks for your time, John. You came to TWS in your mid-20s. Was it a career change?
It absolutely was. I’ve been cooking since I was 17. I have an Associate of Arts in culinary management. I started culinary school a month after high school. But line cooks don’t make a lot of money, unless you’re an executive chef or own the restaurant!
I’m married with an eight-year-old stepdaughter, and making $12 an hour just wasn’t up to snuff. If it was just my wife and I, we could get by, but I wanted to be able to take Phoebe to the movies and spend time with her. You’re working from 3 p.m. to midnight in a kitchen, so even when I did have money, by the time I got off, she was asleep.
So you decided you needed a change. Why welding?
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When I was 12, I spent my summer with my uncle in Kentucky. Both he and his dad are welders. They let me play with their welding machine. I got to put two pieces of metal together. I don’t know what I made, but I thought it was really cool.
A couple of years later, as a junior in high school, I took a vocational welding class. When I graduated, I went back and forth between cooking and welding. Years later, when cooking wasn’t working out, I decided to go back to my other choice.
What was your favorite part about the Tulsa program?
There are a couple of things. I absolutely loved my instructors. They were fantastic. They would literally hold my hand if I needed help with something, and I mean literally. My instructor would come in, grab my hand and do the weld with me. The other thing was the unlimited resources of the school. If you need practice, just come in and do it. But above all, who doesn’t love melting metal?
So you put in extra practice?
I did, and every single Friday, I’d get to school at 7:30 a.m. and stay there all through the third shift, so I’d finish around 10:30 or 11:30 p.m. I had some problems with 6G for a while, but I stayed more than 12 hours a day every Friday till I got it down. 6G is considered one of the hardest positions to weld in; it’s when your pipe is sitting at a 45°angle, so the groove you’re welding is 45° from the ground.
Did you work your way through school?
I was unemployed through welding school, and not by choice. It was a very tough year for me. Other guys were picking up welding jobs after about Phase 6, but I put out applications every day. The only thing I can think of was I got a bad reference from a restaurant, but that’s behind me.
Talk about getting your first welding job.
I just got my first welding job three months ago. It took me almost two years, and believe me, there were a couple of times I just about gave up. Due to some personal stuff that I won’t go into, my wife and I had to move from Jacksonville back to Columbia, South Carolina. I went back into the kitchen to work because I had been unemployed for a year during school. Money is money, so I did what I had to do to at least put some money in my pocket, as well as drive out a little further to find that welding job.
Who are you working for?
Encore Boat Builders. We build Bentley pontoon boats. I fit the pontoons together. It’s not really what I want to do, but it’s going to get me there. It’s giving me on-the-job experience, which is really important.
How did you get the job?
Through a co-worker in the kitchen. Everyone in his family is a welder, except him. He got a message from a friend about a welding job. He didn’t want it, but he knew I was looking. I took a weld test and got it!
So Career Services wasn’t able to help you find work?
It wasn’t that they weren’t able to help me, it’s more that 90% of the jobs they offered required a move out of the state, were traveling jobs or were too far away from home. We only had one car, and I needed to make sure my wife, Cassandra, could get to work as well.
Every time I had a good opportunity, it was too far away. If I wasn’t married and didn’t have a kid, I would have been all over those traveling jobs. But our daughter, Phoebe, lives with her dad in Charleston, SC, so we need to be close for our time with her.
There was a point where I was close to saying, “I’ll take one of these traveling jobs and see my wife again in six months.” We got to a point where we were hurting that badly. I could have taken a job with the shipyard in Norfolk, VA, but Virginia to Charleston is too far to drive, and it’s an expensive plane ticket to get to see Phoebe at least once a month. Not seeing her just wasn’t an option.
That’s frustrating, but it seems your patience paid off.
It was. I know I’m going to get a raise next week when I complete my 90 days, and the plant manager has indicated that I’ve got a great shot at a full-on welding job soon. That should be another raise. Raises aren’t a thing in a kitchen, but in welding you could get a raise every few months. If you do well, your employer doesn’t want you to leave.
What’s your career plan?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to design or build airplanes. I fell in love with the TIG process going through welding school, and that’s how you build planes. It’s all TIG welding, so I figure building planes is still within my reach. I’d love to get into the aerospace industry. We have a Boeing factory in Charleston, which would be even closer to my stepdaughter. Boeing is the kind of place you can retire from. My plan is to tailor my résumé and experience over the next few years so I can end up at a place like Boeing. Mostly, I’m just going to work hard until the next door opens. I get a satisfaction out of what I’m doing now that I haven’t gotten from cooking in a long time.
What do you enjoy most about being a welder?
When I’m welding, I’m in control of what I do. I pride myself on my work ethic and the quality of my work. If I make a mistake welding, I can own up to I and say it was my fault. When I was in the kitchen, I wasn’t in control because of servers, guests and managers. The other part is I get to say, “I make boats!” Welding is a specialized, skilled craft. Anyone can learn to cook or weld, but not everyone can be good at it. I might not be the best welder at the plant I work at now, but by the time I leave, I promise you I will be.
What advice would you give to new students considering TWS?
First: Don’t give up. I almost threw in the towel in Phase 4 before my instructor talked me down. Second: You have access to all the school’s resources, so don’t be afraid to use them. Get your money’s worth. Keep trying, keep burning rods. If you do that, you’ll succeed. It took me two years to get this job; I only got it because I didn’t give up. I didn’t pick up a welding torch for almost two years before this welding test. The only reason I knew I could do it is because I spent 10 months at Tulsa Welding School burning rods, welding plates day after day, hour after hour until I knew I could do the job.
If you’re a TWS graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email Social@StrataTech.com to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), program, and campus name (Tulsa/Jacksonville/Houston).