- Associated Press - Saturday, May 1, 2021

AMHERST, Va. (AP) - After being canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Virginia Welding Wars regional competition is back this year, but it looks a little bit different.

The competition, first held in 2018, was designed by husband-and-wife team Cody Hurd and Codie Cyrus, owners of C&C Piping and Fabrication in Altavista, as a way to connect high school, college and professional welders with local businesses in need of welders.

The competition now is a collaboration between C&C Piping and Fabrication, the Virginia Career Works Central Virginia Workforce Development Board, the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, Central Virginia Community College, and the five area school divisions in Lynchburg and the surrounding counties.

Cyrus said they really wanted to raise awareness about welding and welding careers, and help address the need for welders in the Lynchburg region.

Jon Hardie, principal at the Campbell County Technical Center, said there are three levels of competition at the event: high school, collegiate and professional.

The event typically is held at CVCC, but the campus remains closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year, even with COVID, we kind of pressed on and said, ‘Let’s figure out how to instead of how not to,’” Hardie said. “The workforce still needs people and we need to work at raising up careers in the welding and manufacturing sector.”

Instead of holding the competition at CVCC or one central location, as in years past, Hardie said participants at all three levels will be performing the welds in their own labs and submitting their entries for evaluation. Hardie said 12 high school students, four CVCC students and five professionals are participating this year.

Hardie said the number of participants is lower than in years past because some high schools chose not to participate because of already having limited in-person time with their students this year.

Larry Johnston, welding instructor at Amherst County High School, said he has supported the competition since its onset and always encourages his students to participate.

“That’s what this is all about - letting the kids shine,” Johnston said.

Johnston said in the past, he’s taken all his students to the in-person competition, whether they were competing or not. Even those who weren’t welding had the opportunity to network with local businesses, pass out their resumes and get advice from college-level and professional-level welders.

Even though that networking aspect is not prevalent in this year’s competition with the modifications, Johnston said he still is working with companies in need of entry-level welders, trying to get his students set up with jobs or internships for after graduation or during the summer.

Five of Johnston’s students are participating in the competition this year, and they all completed their welds on April 21 and 22.

Jonathan Graham, one of Johnston’s students, said when he was a sophomore at Amherst County High School, he didn’t really want to enroll in the welding course.

“I didn’t really have much of an interest, but my brother told me I should try it,” Graham said. “So I did, and it was pretty fun.”

Graham, now a senior at the school, said his older brother participated in the Central Virginia Welding Wars competition a few years ago and it allowed him to get his foot in the door with several local businesses and eventually land a job with Delta Star.

“I saw that this can really work, so I was excited to get to participate this year,” Graham said.

Amherst County High School junior Landon Coffey said he’s always had an interest in welding and hopes his entry will impress the local businesses.

“Either way, I had fun doing it,” Coffey said. “We’ve been practicing a lot getting ready and I’ve learned a lot. Plus, there’s always next year.”

Jamie Glass, director of economic development for the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, said trades companies always are looking to hire skilled workers.

In the Lynchburg region, Glass said, one of the top industry sectors is metal working, with about 57 companies employing more than 3,500 people in steel and metalworking.

“There’s just a huge need for metal working, period, in the region,” Glass said. “For us, helping to grow the workforce, continuing to fill that talent pipeline in trades, especially in metal working, is key to why we wanted to be involved.”

And, Glass said, they’re seeing it work already. Glass said a then-student who participated in the competition in 2018 at the high school level later was hired by Southern Air and is returning this year to compete at the professional level.

Elizabeth Duncan, agricultural educator at Appomattox County High School, said while the school does not have a welding course, it does cover welding in its agriculture fabrications course. Duncan said juniors and seniors who want more of a focused education in welding typically participate in CVCC’s welding program.

Duncan said she’s had her students participate since the Welding Wars competition began. Typically, she would hold a mini classroom competition to determine which students would go on to participate at the regional competition.

This year, because she has limited in-person time with her students, she had to choose a student who was interested, on top of their school work and willing to put in the extra time outside of class to prepare for the competition.

Jason Ferguson, CVCC’s associate vice president for professional and career studies, said the competition also is a way for the college’s Career and Technical programs to get some attention. When the competition is held on campus, students get to tour the facilities and explore what opportunities CVCC has that they may want to take advantage of during or after high school.

“For the college student and the high school student who aspire to be at the professional level, they get the chance to see those professionals and it really just promotes the field,” Ferguson said.

Participants had until April 30 to submit their projects. A virtual awards ceremony is set for May 21.

While the prize details still are being finalized, the top winners in each level could win scholarships for CVCC courses, welding gear, and interviews with local companies for jobs or internships.

“We want to do our part to help turn students on to welding and welding careers,” Hardie said.

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