RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
On this Labor Day, let's talk about an essential job that fewer people are qualified for - America needs more welders and soon. As older welders retire, there aren't many young people following in their footsteps. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Susanna Capelouto reports on a creative way to get skilled workers into the workforce.
SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: In the '80s, when "Flashdance" brought us Alex, the welding woman who really wanted to be a ballet dancer, America had well over half a million welders. Welding was hot. Today, there are about 40 percent fewer welders.
JEREMY WORLEY: I think there's right at 300,000 jobs right now in the U.S. that needs welders right now.
CAPELOUTO: Jeremy Worley teaches welding at a technical college in north Georgia. He says the demand for welders is at a level that is growing...
WORLEY: Quicker than we can get them out.
CAPELOUTO: So Worley will teach welding to anyone at any age anywhere, including inside Walker State Prison. As part of its ongoing prison reform, Georgia decided to give inmates heavy tools and blowtorches so they can get a welding certificate.
Twenty-six-year-old Christopher Peeples is practicing what's called a t-joint. He's at the end of a mandatory 10-year prison sentence he got for armed robbery when he was barely 17.
CHRISTOPHER PEEPLES: If it's an opportunity for me to dive into welding and they say I have a job here, I'm going to say that's me.
JOHN TURNER: I'm a very good welder.
CAPELOUTO: John Turner is an alumni of the prison welding program. He got out last month and had three job offers.
TURNER: One of the other prospects was in Cherokee County and it was just too far to travel, but he was offering $50,000 a year with a company truck.
CAPELOUTO: He took less pay for a job closer to home. His new colleagues know he has a prison record, but he says they welcomed him. Gardner Carrick is with the Manufacturing Institute in Washington, D.C. That's the training arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. He supports prison programs like the one in Georgia.
GARDNER CARRICK: We certainly would love to see prisoners successfully reintegrate into the community and into the economy, so if welding is a vehicle by which that can happen then I think that's great to hear.
CAPELOUTO: But that's only a drop in the bucket to fill the demand. Carrick blames U.S. education policy for the lack of skilled labor in the U.S. - think No Child Left Behind.
CARRICK: We made the decision that all kids should go to college, and as a result, you saw the elimination of a lot of the technical programs at the high school level.
CAPELOUTO: Carrick's group is pushing for more skills training and programs that make manufacturing careers attractive to teenagers. And many companies have started their own apprenticeship programs. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.
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