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SPARKS OF SUCCESS: Hendry County ignites passion for the trades among students in a high-tech world

Amid the rise of AI and technology, Hendry County stands out by training the next generation of welders and tradespeople
Posted at 7:07 PM, Feb 07, 2024

CLEWISTON, Fla. — In today's world full of AI and new technology, trades jobs often get overlooked by students. However, Hendry County is proving to be an exception to this trend.

Sparks were flying off metal as students sharpened their skills at the Welding School in Clewiston. They say a trade like welding offers them a lot to like. “From the outside, it may look a little extreme but I find it kind of relaxing - and once a product is done and looks complete, it feels good that you built it," said Cruz Ponce, a student at the welding school.

Ponce says his journey into welding began when he fell in love with the craft after getting into a class while dual-enrolling. Now, he says he’s halfway done with a two-year course to get his welding certification to step into the job market.

“A lot of people are interested in technology, but, there’s still quite a lot of demand for trades,” said Ponce.

This demand is underlined by industry professionals like Richard McCreary, President of Gulf Marine, a ship repair company based in Tampa. McCreary visited the school to discuss career opportunities, emphasizing the urgent need for young talent in welding as the national average age of welders tips over 50 years old. He believes welding, particularly in ship repairs, is future proofed.

“Cutting and fitting steel into the hull of a ship or barge - welding it and back-gouging it - can’t be automated because every one is different,” McCreary added.

McCreary says he stopped in Clewiston because he heard about how successful the trade certification program is. The Hendry School District says they’re the number one rural school district in Florida for K-12 trade certifications.

"We get about 100 to 120 certifications a year that come through our small Hendry County training program, and we're very proud to do that," says Michael Swindle, Hendry County School District Superintendent. He says the district prides itself on offering a variety of certifications, from diesel mechanics to welding, contributing to preparing students for successful careers.

Last year alone, 38 students received their welding certifications, with Ponce poised to join their ranks. He says his ambitions extend beyond immediate employment in Clewiston, aspiring to one day own a welding shop. Hendry County's says their commitment to trades education not only supports local students like Ponce, but addresses the broader industry's call for skilled labor.