PALMER - Sparks fly when Josh Ray's around.
The Colony High School senior is one of about 60 students in the Mat-Su Borough School District welding program at Colony High School. On Monday, he spent part of the afternoon welding V grooves in preparation for the state Skills USA challenge in Anchorage.
It takes a steady and practiced hand to wield the oxy-acetylene torch and manipulate steel plates. Ray shields his eyes from the super-bright sparks and light that's generated when the superheated gas meets metal. Aside from practicing for the competition, Ray is one of dozens of students who earn welding certifications each school year, skills employers value. "I'm going into the Army and plan to keep welding as a hobby, maybe just to help make some side money," Ray said.
Although Ray has a future in the military planned, he said he takes satisfaction in being able to create with his own hands.
"If I ever need something fixed, I'll be able to do it," he said. "I won't have to go spend my money for somebody else to do it. And, if something happens and I don't like (the military), I can get out and still have welding."
It's that opportunity that drives welding instructor Dan Trotter. A former Colony High School student, Trotter studied welding himself in school when the shop was housed at Palmer High School. After two years of instruction in the high school program, Trotter said his students have all the certifications employers are looking for and have earned up to 12 college credits if they choose to continue their education.
"As soon as they leave here, they have the same industry certifications they use at the oil companies or any place," Trotter said. "I have a lot of kids who go into the military, a lot of kids who go out into the industry and a lot of kids who go on (for more education) in engineering. But a lot of all of it relates to the welding."
Certified students typically can get jobs right out of high school that pay a starting wage of $18 a hour, Trotter said.
"A couple of years ago, 10 kids left the shop and all 10 got jobs," Trotter said. "They're working lots of overtime, getting a good (wage), and some are making more than I'm making. And that's what this program's all about."
One student who plans for both a career in the military and as a welder is Tekakwitha Viglione. A second-year welding student, she's one of about 10 females in the program.
"I'm going into the Navy to be a steel worker," she said. "I want to, at some point, be an underwater welder, because that seems like that would be a really cool job."
For now, Viglione is certified in stick and MIG (wire-feed) welding and is working on others. She's not shy to tout the welding program to others, either.