A manufacturing company with a plant in Montross considered pulling out of Virginia nearly two years ago because it couldn’t find enough skilled labor.

Carry–On Trailer especially needed more welders to put together its trailers, which are sold by such companies as Lowe’s, Home Depot and Tractor Supply.

To create a pipeline, Rappahannock Community College, Westmoreland County, the Northern Neck Planning Commission and the company teamed up to apply for a GO Virginia grant to help provide classes to train welders not only for Carry–On Trailer but also other companies such as Uni–Dyn in Spotsylvania County and for those interested in starting their own business.

GO Virginia, which stands for the Virginia Initiative for Growth and Opportunity, supports programs that create more high-paying jobs through incentivized collaboration between business, education, and government to diversify and strengthen the state’s economy. It awarded the group a grant of around $230,000, and Westmoreland County and the Northern Neck Chesapeake Bay Region Partnership provided the local match.

RCC began offering welding classes late last year at the Westmoreland Workforce Training Center. It’s located in a former machine shop just across Industrial Park Drive from the Carry–On Trailer plant. Carry–On provides the steel used in the classes, and the state-of-the-art equipment was paid for with funds from the grant and other resources such as the state’s Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund.

“So far, they’ve trained close to 25 welders, and 15 are working full time at Carry–On,” said Jason Perry, RCC’s vice president for workforce development. “The program has been a real big success. We managed to keep the company in our area, and not have an economic downturn in Westmoreland County if they had left.”

It’s also enabled Carry–On Trailer to expand, he said. Its workforce at Montross has grown from 160 employees about a year and a half ago to 230 today.

RCC’s welding program at Montross offers a 40-hour class during the day, three times a week, geared toward Carry–On Trailer employees who have been vetted by the company. It also offers a 42-hour welding class, two evenings a week, that’s open to anyone. Those who complete either class and pass a test earn metal inert gas, or MIG, welding certification from the American Welding Society.

“Some have applied and been hired at Carry–On,” Perry said of those taking the evening class. “Some are going to work for other companies in the area. I’ve tried to position some at Omega Protein in Reedville and some at Potomac Supply in Kinsale. Not all are trying to pursue a career at Carry–On. Some have actually gone on their own to set up their own welding business.”

Skilled welders are in short supply, not just on the Northern Neck. Projections show the United States will need 450,000 welding professionals by 2022. Virginia alone had 4,400 job postings for welders within the past 12 months, according to Monica Pfarr, executive director of the American Welding Society Foundation.

“Especially in the case of welders, individual postings may be looking to hire more than one individual, so this doesn’t necessarily equate to 4,400 actual positions,” she said. “It could be a lot more.”

Pfarr said that the mean salary for a welder in the commonwealth is $50,000.

Jonathan Mealer, an Army veteran, and Tony Cashwell, a former middle school custodian, are the two Carry–On Trailer employees taking the daytime welding class at the Westmoreland Workforce Training Center. Both said they found out about it when they interviewed for a job with the company.

Mealer said he was interested in taking the class because he’d earned a stick welding certification in high school, and his father, uncle and a number of cousins are welders. He already does some welding as a side business at his home in Louisa County.

“Welding is in my family,” he said, “I just enjoy doing it.”

Cashwell said he had no experience with welding, but was interested in learning a trade and Carry–On Trailer was offering the class for free.

“I figured I might as well take it,” he said.

Both earn $15 an hour at Carry–On Trailer, and will see their pay bumped up to $18 an hour once they complete the program.

Their instructor is Kenny Roebuck, a retired Norfolk Naval Shipyard welder who’d been teaching a welding class at the Northern Neck Technical Center in Warsaw before he was asked to teach the daytime welding class at Montross. He said he had three students the first week it was offered.

Roebuck teaches them MIG welding, because that’s what they need to know to assemble trailers at Carry–On. They gain hands-on experience by using that skill to assemble a trailer. He said he works closely with students as they weld their first trailer, and then is there if they need help with the next one.

“The more you do yourself, the more you remember,” he said.

Wednesday afternoon Cashwell, who started the class last Tuesday, practiced welding on an inch-thick piece of metal while Mealer, who started the week before, spot welded mesh to a trailer gate ramp.

“I started building the trailer yesterday,” Mealer said. “Now I’m putting the gate on. Kenny showed me what pieces go where.”

RCC’s goal was to train 40 welders for Carry–On. They’re about halfway there with a year left in the GO Virginia grant, Perry said.

“I think, even after this two-year grant program ends, we’re talking about how we’re going to sustain it,” he said. “Nothing’s been finalized. There are discussions about what our next steps will be once our grant funds are exhausted.”

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407 cjett@freelancestar.com