High School Senior Carson Brownfield aspires to one day be a building contractor, a career requiring skills and experience with a variety of trades so he knows what to look for when hiring subcontractors and suppliers.
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While his dream was always within reach, it became closer to reality thanks to Omaha Westside High School's innovative welding, fabrication and manufacturing program.
"Having the opportunity to apply what I've seen in demonstrations, critically think and problem solve has allowed me to broaden my horizons," Brownfield said. "On the technical side, I've learned the ins and outs of various welding practices, and on the conceptual side, I've learned how to advocate for myself."
With those skills, Brownfield and his classmates will be in demand. Nearly a half million welding positions will have gone unfilled in the United States by 2022, according to the National Welding Society.
"The world of manufacturing is way bigger than just melting metal together," said Westside Welding Instructor John Bombac. "Past students have told me how jealous they are that our students have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience at such a young age, and current students continue to express how thrilled they are to start working in the new lab."
The school recently unveiled the 2,500-square-foot lab facility equipped with state-of-the-art machinery, funded by more than 40 donors, including Union Pacific's Community Ties Giving Program. Students learn real-world techniques in classes such as arc welding, civil engineering and architecture, and oxy-acetylene welding.
Westside High School Senior Nathan Kershaw said the new space's open floor plan allows him and his peers to safely navigate the area to help underclassmen. "The old welding lab was nice, but it got crowded at times," he said. "This renovation doubled the size, making it easier to communicate with classmates and help those who may not be as confident."
Kershaw decided his sophomore year to pursue welding as a career choice, especially since local businesses such as Owen Industries and Union Pacific offer mentorships, apprenticeships and job opportunities to hardworking students following graduation.
Investing in workforce development is a key mission of Union Pacific's Community Ties Giving Program. "Initiatives like the Westside High School welding lab help students to become more attractive job candidates who can progress more quickly in their careers," said UP's Thad Call, general director of training.
Hands-on instruction and experiential learning exposes students to the industrial work environment and allows them to evaluate their own performance throughout the process.
"The experiences I've had so far at Westside, along with the teachers who've helped me along the way, are what inspired me to make my decision to pursue welding," Kershaw said.
Students who want engineering experience, but may not want to pursue it as a full-time endeavor, benefit from other aspects of the trade-related curriculum.
"One of our biggest focus areas is teaching soft skills," Bombac said. "Students walk away from the lab knowing how to manage time, follow safety protocol and develop a work ethic that pushes continual growth."
Students also have the opportunity to receive college credit upon successful completion of advanced welding courses. Brownfield not only is excited to receive a head start on upper-level educational endeavors, but also appreciates the skills acquired along the way.
"The more you can learn within each trade, the better off you'll be," he said.
With the technical trades comprising a disproportionately older workforce, Westside High School's emphasis on attracting young talent accommodates the nation's growing demand, boosting our economy and keeping jobs local.