Hoosier welder paying it forward by donating metal to help students

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – These days, some reality shows are making welding more popular, but some people consider it a dying art.

According to the American Welding Society, there will be a shortage of welding professionals in two years.

“The welding situation is dire. I have customers asking almost daily, if not every single day, if we know of anybody looking for a job,” said Jesse Johnson with Metal Supermarkets on the East Side. “They need welders, they don’t have enough people on-site to be able to do the jobs that they’re getting.”

Johnson has been welding for over five years. He’s looking to beat those odds. He’s not only influencing young, hopefully, future welders, but he's also helping them perfect the craft through a special donation program.

“I feel it’s our duty being in the industry to try to encourage younger people to get involved,” said Johnson. “And to be proactive with their futures and really do something that’s going to benefit them and their future families in the long-term.”

Johnson’s customers come into the shop to get parts for their projects. Some people work on things as large as buildings or airplanes or as small as wall art.

Sometimes, there’s a couple of inches of metal they don’t need so, Johnson will ask if the customer wants to buy the whole piece and donate what they don’t need. That piece of metal may have just been a scrap to that customer, but to several local schools, it’s a gold mine—or should I say, metal mine.

“We started hearing frustrations about metal buying and how it can be a challenge for certain schools,” said Johnson. “They typically don’t buy truck loads, so they’re buying smaller quantities; they’re having difficulties in getting material quickly.”

That’s when Johnson got the idea for metal donations. The unused pieces are either donated by the customer or by Johnson’s shop. Each donated piece is separated into five buckets in the middle of the shop. When they’re full—which usually takes about a week or so—Johnson will hand deliver the parts to the schools. It’s almost like Christmas for some of the students.

“It’s free metal; they get excited about it,” said Johnson. “They always love rummaging through the buckets and seeing what’s dropped off because it does change every single time we drop off buckets, they get a little different mix than they did the last time.”

Hamilton Southeast High School is just one of the schools Johnson brings his donations to. It also happens to be where he went to high school. When he was there, the school’s welding program was not as big as it is today, nor were the students as enthusiastic about it.

“The [different] amount of welds you can do, all that you can do within welding and also my teacher, he always says, 'Welding is a form of art,'” said HSEHS junior Hannah Swinford. “So you could basically do whatever you want with it and it’s very interesting.”

Swinford started welding with her dad. They’re both interested in races, so naturally, they love putting together cars. She plans on going to college for diesel auto-mechanics.

But welding isn’t just an art-form for these students, it gives them motivation.

“I think because it’s like sometimes you could have a fantastic day and you get all your welds perfectly right,” said Swinford. “And there are some days where your welds never turn out right and it’s just - keep practice, practice and practice.”

Welding also gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment, and they use the skills they learn outside of the classroom too.

“I have a farm job right now, and we do it every day there, and it just keeps me in practice and gets me better every day,” said HSEHS junior Cody Shively.

But maybe the best part of the program is that it helps these students feel like they belong.

According to HSEHS, 90% of their students go to college after graduation but 10% choose to go right into the workforce. Before programs like welding started up, they didn’t really have a place to get solid, hands-on working experience. J. Everett Light Career Center is an option for these students, however, it just didn’t always work for their schedules.

Thanks in part to Johnson’s donations and bringing the program to on-site, students have gotten more interested in welding in school and as a career.

“You can make whatever you want and it’s not just sticking metal together all the time—there’s art to it. So, it’s great for accomplishment,” said HSEHS junior Elijah Cooper. “It makes you feel good at the end of the day knowing that you made something either that looks pretty or in some cases it’s like saving people’s lives in a way if you’re building structural. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of skill.”

In fact, enrollment for the program at HSEHS increased dramatically from five students to 28 coming from both HSEHS and Fishers HS. For next year, the interest has become so high, they had to cap the class off at 35 students.

“Schools are realizing that 60-80% of kids are going to go to college, but that other group of kids is kind of left out and they’re picking up on that, they’re in-tune with it,” said Johnson. “I think the industry’s been more vocal that we need people. We need motivated young people, and I think we’re finally starting to see it come around.”

Johnson says welding will always have a place in the world, and so will these students.

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