A group of Floyd County Prison inmates will have the opportunity to enter the workforce with significant new skills thanks to a partnership with the Technical College System of Georgia.

A mobile welding lab has been in Rome every other day to work with the prisoners to get their welding certifications, which they will be able to use for employment once they leave the facility.

“After the first week of September, these students will be fully certified in shield metal arc and flux core welding,” said TCSG welding instructor Scott Edison. “Once released, these guys will be able to start work as welders immediately.”

Christopher Brookins, an offender who is expecting his release in October, said he is looking forward to taking his welding certifications with him.

“Some of us have never had a job,” Brookins said. “Now we can make something of ourselves once we leave.”

The prison has two groups of offenders who meet every other morning or afternoon to practice their welding techniques in the mobile lab on prison grounds.

Edison said this is his sixth such program conducted at a correctional facility and he can recall many success stories from the people he trained in the program. Many did not have any experience working with their hands and had no clue how to use a welding iron, but picked it up quickly.

“We encourage them not to waste this opportunity,” Edison said. “They end up not only enjoying it but building a future for themselves that includes a well-paying job.”

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the average pay for welders in Northwest Georgia last year was $17.45 an hour. Like many blue collar jobs, the industry is also seeing a wave of retirements that is making positions available. The American Welding Society estimates half a million welding jobs will be available nationwide by 2022.

“As this urgent need for welders continues to grow, we at GNTC Economic Development view this training program as a small but impactful way to combat the demand,” said Kim Crowe, Georgia Northwestern Technical College director of economic development.

“This is going to keep us from coming back into the (prison) system,” said Sarin Kon. “I’m learning a lot about myself through this and I find myself wanting to succeed in this training.”

Kon said the course also teaches useful soft skills, including scheduling, prioritizing, self-motivation and good habits.

One project the group has worked on in their free time is a wood and charcoal smoker.

“It is something they are very proud of,” said Warden Mike Long.

He often takes the smoker to welding employers to display what the students can do because of their training.

“The welding graduates who meet the criteria to enter the center will have an outstanding opportunity finding welding jobs in this community as well as the communities they may return to after being released,” said Betty Dean, deputy warden at the Floyd County Prison.

“My hope is more employers in the area will partner with us in hiring employable skilled offenders,” she added.

Currently, Steel King Industries Inc., F&P Georgia and Advanced Steel Technology are partnering with Floyd County Corrections to hire certified welders. The inmates will still have to prove their proficiency, according to Edison.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a blessing this is,” said Clarence Leonard. “I can get a stable job and support my family.”

According to Leonard and the other students, interest in the program has been widespread in Floyd County Prison. Other offenders often drop by their cells and watch them go over course material. Prison administrators will also bring welding students things to repair, which they do in their spare time.

The welding classes at Floyd County Prison were made possible through partnerships at both the state and local level, according to Stephanie Scearce, GNTC vice president for economic development.

After discussions with the prison, Scearce and her team developed the welding program offered at the prison before working to secure funding.

“It’s been a year and a half in the making but we finally made it, pandemic and all,” Scearce said. “We have heard about other technical colleges doing something similar, and TCSG provides the labs.

Scearce and her team went before the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission Workforce Investment Board to seek funding for the course. They also submitted an application to TCSG to secure one of their mobile welding labs.

“After touring the training at the prison, I was moved by the men’s respect and dedication to learning a new technical skill that will earn them employment upon parole,” said Scearce.

“When the time comes,” she said, “I know these men will be equipped to fulfill high-demand jobs within manufacturing that are extremely hard to fill and keep filled.”

Long and Dean both stress that educational programs make it less likely the inmates come back into the system. Long cited several examples of offenders who have earned their Commercial Driver’s License while in the Floyd County Prison and now have careers in commercial truck driving.

“Money we spend on these types of programs saves us on extra security and offender care in the long run,” he said. “In my experience, when you break the chain of incarceration it makes a difference to the former offenders and their families. Their children are less likely to wind up in the system if their parents are home and have a good job.”

In fact, Long said he has received letters from offenders at other prisons asking for a transfer to the Floyd County Prison to be able to participate in future sessions of the welding program.

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