Career options heating up in Smithfield

Published 9:29 pm Monday, March 19, 2018

The smell of hot steel was thick in the room on Thursday as Nick Reiser, 18, cut through the metal handle on the welding table with his live torch. The sparks were reflected on the high school senior’s red, white and blue welding helmet, and the hiss of the burn was accompanied by grinding metal elsewhere in the Smithfield High School lab.

Reiser and sophomore Dalton Epps, 16, were cutting off a handle on the table, shortening it and reattaching it on a more convenient side for the space.

“It was kind of hard to get through, so we’re making some more room,” Dalton said.

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Projects with superhot equipment are ordinary at the new Isle of Wight County Schools Welding Lab at Smithfield High School. About 37 students from Smithfield and Windsor High Schools take welding classes each week, according to instructor James Pike.

The lab is a partnership between Isle of Wight County Schools and Liebherr, the equipment manufacturer who advised the lab’s construction and donated 10 two-station welding tables and 17 welding machines, IWCS Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton wrote on his blog, iwcssupt.blogspot.com.

Liebherr also recently delivered a pallet of cut steel, according to Pike.

“It was like Christmas to me,” he said. “They’re really supporting this program.”

Thorton first discussed the possibility of the welding lab two years ago with Cort Reiser, vice president of manufacturing for Liebherr and also Nick’s father. The elder and younger Reisers used a welding torch to cut the big steel ribbon at the grand opening ceremony held on Feb. 9.

“We need welders on the Peninsula,” Reiser said at the ceremony. “This is not only the commonwealth but national as well. We need these skills.”

The lab is part of a commitment to Career and Technology Education programs for future members of the region’s workforce. The IWCS School Board ended its partnership with the Pruden Center in 2016, where students of Smithfield and Windsor high schools took trade skills and certification classes alongside students from Suffolk Public Schools.

The decision was made to bring those courses back into Isle of Wight’s high schools.

“Not every student’s talent is to go to college,” Thornton said at the steel ribbon cutting. “There’s so many jobs and opportunities out there for them. We had about 135 going to (Pruden Center). This year, we have only a few of our programs open, and we have 306 students in new CTE courses.”

Pike said that his students will earn certification from the American Welding Society’s SENSE Program. The program outlines the knowledge and skills needed in the workplace. Trade professional and industry representatives visit the school to explain apprentice programs and trade school opportunities.

“Our No. 1 goal is to get the students certified,” he said.

The students are also making themselves useful around the school by welding outdoor grills for the culinary program and doing small repairs, like fixing up stools in engineering teacher Heather Greer’s classroom.

“I like welding,” Nick Reiser said beside his handiwork on the welding table. “I want to do it as a trade.”

He plans to go to Thomas Nelson Community College for further certifications and then Old Dominion University for a degree in mechanical engineering.

“I’ll already have the hands-on experience of how to do it,” he said.

Then there are young women like Cate Tuck, who was cheering for female welders in the middle of class. The 17-year-old Smithfield High School junior is one of several young ladies that work in the lab.

She’s learned how to hold the welding torch steady and different ways to bond metals. She’s experienced in staying safe while cutting through steel. She might even enjoy a career with one of those torches.

“It’s an awesome experience,” she with her goggles and gloves. “I’ve done more stuff in here than any other classroom that I’ve been in. I love all of this hands-on stuff.”