JASPER, Tenn. — Michael "Seth" Davis said he didn't have any specific career plans when he was at Whitwell High School, but when he heard about a welding apprenticeship program offered at the Valmont plant in Jasper, he decided to apply.
Davis was one of the first high school students in Tennessee to be enrolled in the pre-apprentice welding program when Chattanooga State Community College and Marion County public schools started the program at Valmont in 2019.
"It was a new program that sounded interesting, so I tried it out and found out I really enjoyed it," Davis said.
During the past four years, Davis hasn't missed a day of work while studying and becoming a certified welding fitter at Valmont. Last year, the 22-year-old welder earned nearly $80,000 doing fitted welding at Valmont, he said.
"It's a great program that teaches you the skills you need to have a good-paying job," Davis said in an interview at the plant.
Davis was one of the first of 37 student apprentices who have worked and been trained at Valmont through the state-funded apprenticeship program designed to help provide on-the-job training for high-demand jobs. More than a dozen of the students are still working at Valmont full time.
On Tuesday, another seven new apprentices and 17 high school pre-apprentices joined Valmont's manufacturing trade programs — an alternative career pathway for students to enter a high-demand, high-wage career field with opportunities for advancement.
Apprentices receive on-the-job practical training at Valmont paired with classroom instruction through Chattanooga State, the registered apprenticeship sponsor and provider of the program's related training instruction. In partnership with the Marion County and Sequatchie County school systems, pre-apprentices receive hands-on training at Valmont during the school day and have an opportunity to join the apprenticeship program or be hired by Valmont after graduation.
The apprenticeship program has been critical for allowing the manufacturer to grow and continue to shape and weld a variety of poles and parts for the agricultural, construction and telecommunications industries, said Bruce Bacon, the plant manager for Valmont's Jasper plant.
"Across the country, there is a skilled labor shortage," Bacon said in an interview Wednesday. "With this program, we try to build a pipeline of talent that is homegrown and able to make family-living wages. We've got a lot of plans here to continue to grow, and we need to continue to build the talent in this area."
Workers who complete the high school program are eligible to work full time at Valmont or continue on with more post-secondary education.
Other workers may enter the program through Chattanooga State, including some like Jeremiah James, who already works at Valmont. James signed on Tuesday to join the apprentice program to upgrade his skills and become a maintenance mechanic after working in assembly operations at the plant for the past two years.
"This is a doorway to a whole other field," James said. "Employers want you to show up with learned experience, but too often there is no opportunity to get that work experience. In this program, we are provided that opportunity."
With a couple of years of vocational training and some extra overtime work, some of the welders and maintenance mechanics now earn nearly $100,000 a year shortly after getting out of high school.
"It's a great opportunity to meet the needs of growing businesses and to provide good-paying jobs for those willing to work and learn these job skills," Tennessee state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said in an interview after the apprenticeship sign-ups Wednesday.
Valmont is the largest of 11 businesses in Southeast Tennessee with apprenticeship programs through Chattanooga State, which provides targeted training for each company in 15 different disciplines, Chattanooga State Vice President Bo Drake said.
According to Go Build Tennessee, one trade apprentice is available for every five retiring trade workers, and half of the Tennessee trade workforce is expected to retire within the next 15 years.
Diane Larkin, executive vice president of global operations for Valmont, said the apprenticeship program in Jasper is key to nurturing the next generation of welders and mechanics needed to staff what she said has been the company's best-performing plant.
The Valmont plant in Jasper, which employs 260 workers, was recently recognized as the best Valmont plant in the world among the 84 operated around the globe by the Omaha, Nebraska-based manufacturing giant.
"When we're looking for a place to invest in the next generation of advanced manufacturing, engineering and technology, this is always one of the plants that we are talking about," Larkin said in an interview Wednesday.
The Jasper plant was selected to be the initial test for Valmont's new connected information system that will digitally connect machines along the assembly line to improve the workflow and better detect maintenance needs and bottlenecks, Larkin said. The system cost more than $1 million to install but should improve operating efficiency, Larkin said.
Valmont opened its Jasper plant in 2000. It has grown since to become one of Marion County's largest manufacturing employers.