PIERRE, S.D. – Tom Rogers is no stranger to manufacturing and contracting—in fact, his father was a contractor, so he grew up around the industry, even learned the trade himself. After graduating high school, the Pierre high school welding and drafting instructor went on to get his associate degree in pre-architecture and his bachelor’s degree in industrial technology.
Rogers has been teaching for 28 years. In 1988, he began his career in Stanley County, instructing classes like drafting, welding and cabinet making, and in 2011, made the move to T.F. Riggs in Pierre.
As the industry continues to evolve thanks to advancements in technology, Rogers says the growing awareness and general interest from both students and parents alike, has caused a major spike in class enrollment. In fact, he’s had to turn kids away because he was pushing maximum capacity.
“Manufacturing isn’t what it used to be,” Rogers said. “It used to be a lot of manual labor. But now, so much of it is automated and driven by technology. So not only are employers looking for those trade skills, they’re looking for people who know how to operate the machines and design the technology that’s used to make those machines run. And that’s what we’re getting our kids interested in.”
And for high school students in Pierre, the interest is there, and rapidly growing.
Take Aaron Hoelscher. The Riggs junior completed two welding classes as a sophomore and enrolled in Rogers’s drafting class this year. But it wasn’t enough for him, he wanted more.
“Aaron came to me and asked if he could take a Welding III class, and unfortunately the Dept. of Education doesn’t have a class like that built into the current curriculum,” Rogers said. “So we went to one of the school’s counselors to see how we can accommodate his skills and interests, eventually allowing him to earn credit as a ‘teacher’s assistant’ in my third period Welding I class. He’s been a tremendous help.”
Hoelsher says he enjoys the continued education and experience, and likes mentoring his fellow classmates and friends while he improves on his skills as well.
“Mr. Rogers’s welding classes are good beginner classes for students who want to learn the basics,” Hoelscher said. “You can’t teach welding from a book—it’s very hands-on. I’ve been helping him teach students how to use different machines. He’ll explain how to use them, and I’ll help them if they have questions.”
Hoelscher added that his experience and education in Rogers’s class has helped him at his farm job.
“I’ve had my job at the farm for about two years, and the things I’ve learned in welding have helped me perform maintenance work on a lot of the farm equipment,” he said.
But welding and drafting isn’t just for the guys. Hoelscher added that the girls in his class are “breaking stereotypes” by really taking a liking to welding, too.
“Mr. Rogers always says women make great welders because they’re extra cautious, picky even,” he said with a laugh. “They have a steady hand and it shows in their quality of work.”
Hoelscher says he plans on joining his older brother at the School of Mines after graduation to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.
“I think my background on the farm and experience I’ve gained from Mr. Rogers will give me a leg-up when it comes to my college education,” he said. “The future of the job force in welding and drafting is strong, and because of what we’re learning from Rogers, the career outlook is promising.”
Hoelscher isn’t the only one earning extra credit. Senior Max Longman has already been accepted into the welding program at Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI). He’s taking three MTI courses, earning four credit hours at a substantially reduced rate.
“I found I really liked welding and wanted to continue to get better at it, so MTI’s welding program is a good fit for me,” Longman said. “I’m excited to go next year, especially since I’ll have some of the basic courses out of the way.”
And thanks to Rogers’ career exploration component, Longman has learned there’s plenty of opportunities in the welding sector, many of which with a very competitive entry-level salary.
“Entry-level welders, depending on where you’re hired, can start at $40,000-$50,000 per year,” Rogers said. “Not many fresh college graduates can say they’re earning that kind of income.”
Still, the manufacturing “image” continues to be a struggle for many, but Rogers says people are beginning to see it differently and appreciate its worth and value to our education and economy.
“I guess what I want to remind people of, is that a four-year college degree isn’t for everybody,” he said. “Tech schools offer excellent career opportunities.”