By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
If you were asked to describe a welder, it probably wouldn’t be much like Tori Huggins.
The 29-year-old graduated Hendrix College in 2007 an All-American in basketball with a degree in theatre and kinesiology – and $40,000 in debt she couldn’t repay.
“I was that girl that went back to my parents’ house, living in the basement,” she said.
Many years earlier, Huggins had been singed by a spark while her dad was welding and refused to go anywhere near the activity again. But during college summer breaks, she’d done some basic welding in a boat factory in her hometown of Clinton, and she continued working there after college.
After a tornado destroyed the factory, she decided to get serious about welding and discovered she loved it. Soon she was traveling the country working in nuclear power plants and earning enough to pay off her debt in three years. She bought a car and a house in Conway.
Today, she teaches welding at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center in Little Rock, a state-funded program where 12 students learn a skill that in 18 weeks will take many of them from minimum wage backgrounds to $18 an hour. She tries to encourage more women to follow her example. Classes are free and also available in Fort Smith and El Dorado. The school’s phone number is 501-562-4482.
Huggins this past Tuesday shared her story during a panel discussion at Jobs Now, a summit sponsored by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Before an audience of 500, she wore a smart business suit and spoke confidently alongside her fellow big shots on stage.
The conference’s purpose was to consider ways to match unemployed and underemployed Arkansas workers, like Huggins once was, with the tens of thousands of skilled trade jobs that are remaining unfilled and those that will be available as older workers retire. Steve Williams, CEO of Maverick Transportation, said he had parked 100 18-wheelers because he couldn’t find reliable drivers. That job starts at $52,000.
Two common mentalities clearly need to go by the wayside.
One is that learning a trade is somehow inferior to going to college. Too often, young people are encouraged to make good grades so they can get a scholarship – and if they don’t go to college, well, maybe they can get a job in construction or something. Skilled tradesmen often earn higher salaries than college graduates, and their jobs require no less brainwork.
“We don’t put in nuclear powerhouses by being a bunch of idiots,” Huggins told me. “You’ve got to know offsets, you’ve got to do fractions and multiplication and all this stuff, and at times even a little bit of calculus here and there.”
The other outdated attitude is that “getting an education” means leaving home for four years after high school. Colleges and universities should be oriented toward nimbly moving students of all ages to employability in an ever-shifting economy. Moreover, as Dr. Glen Fenter, president of Mid-South Community College, said during the panel discussion with Huggins, all students should graduate high school with a job skill, not just a diploma.
Some of this is already happening – the state-funded Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center being an example. At Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, some students, instead of earning credit hours, obtain certificates that move them straight into jobs with Walmart and its suppliers. Many high school students take concurrent credit classes that shorten their college careers. At Maumelle High School, students declare a “pathway” and leave school with a marketable skill.
How do we get more of this? Joe Quinn, Walmart’s senior director of pubic affairs and government relations, said in the panel discussion that the next governor should make workforce development a signature issue.
Both Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross have shared ideas on the campaign trail. Hutchinson favors economic development plans tying together high schools and two-year-colleges based on regional opportunities. Ross has called for sending reports home with eighth and 11th grade students projecting common careers and salaries when they enter the workforce. “Too many people today are going to college and getting degrees in what makes them feel good rather than where the jobs are,” Ross told school board members this summer.
That’s sort of what happened to Huggins, but in a good way. She got a degree that made her feel good, and now she has a career that makes her feel good.