TAMPA — Dylan Wilson pulls his face mask down over his eyes and braces himself against the wall before grabbing a torch and fusing two pieces of metal.
For the 16-year-old Jefferson High School junior, the best part of the school day is the two periods he spends in welding class as one of 278 students in welding programs districtwide — at Hillsborough High and Tampa Bay Technical High as well as Jefferson.
Welding is one of many career and technical programs open to Hillsborough County school district students and one of the ways the district is helping answer the need for more young skilled employees to replace workers retiring from ship repair jobs at Port Tampa Bay.
“I’d love to be a part of that,” said Dylan, who hopes to earn industry certification upon graduation and launch a welding career. The port, home to four ship repair and dry-dock businesses, is the only port offering such services in Florida or anywhere along the Gulf and east coasts from Mobile, Alabama, to Charleston, South Carolina.
Tampa’s shipyards desperately need young workers, said International Ship Repair vice president Dave Sessums, where the workforce of 300 repairs about 100 ships a year for pay ranging from $11 to $25 an hour.
Wilson will be entering a growth industry: The number of jobs in ship repair here increased this year from 6,755 in 2010 to 7,455.
The school district welding program, in place more than 20 years, is the only career and technical program Hillsborough offers that prepares students to jump right into a job at the port if they pass a certification test, said Mike Ramsey, who supervises industrial technical programs.
Nearly 100 students are enrolled in the Maritime Academy at Jefferson and Blake High, where schooling in fields such as finance and logistics also help prepare the next generation of ship repair workers. Blake’s maritime program is in its fourth year, Jefferson’s in its second.
Those enrolled in the Maritime Academy will likely need further education before they can move into a professional job, Ramsey said.
“It gives them a feel for what’s out there,” he said.
Pedro Castrejon, Jefferson’s welding instructor, said many of his students — mostly boys — come to him with behavior issues and lagging grades. But he finds that they enjoy the work so much that many are able to turn things around because they want to stay in their welding classes. It is considered to be an elective, and he can drop them for poor behavior.
“This program is an outlet for them to be successful,” Castrejon said.
Wilson likes the hands-on nature of his welding classes. He saw his grades improve after he joined the program last school year.
“I want to do my best,” he said. “It motivates me to do better in other classes.”
Castrejon knows first-hand the benefits the welding program brings to its students. A 2004 Jefferson High graduate, he went through the program as a student.
“I wasn’t made for college,” Castrejon said. “I was really good with my hands. The teacher took me in and it was something I was natural at.”
He went to vocational school after graduation and landed a job at Gulf Marine Repair, which offers the largest dry dock and ship repair operation at Port Tampa Bay.
Now as an instructor, Castrejon runs his class like it’s a welding job.
First-year “rookies” spend much of their time in the classroom learning about welding concepts. But after that, most of the class is spent in a work room where they get hands-on practice with torches and other tools. Sometimes, they fix broken benches, chairs and desks around the school.
“This is what grown men would be doing in the field,” Castrejon said.
Last school year, Castrejon signed up some of his best students for the welding certification test, which takes six to seven hours to complete. Six of them passed.
“Some grown men can’t pass that test,” Castrejon said. “My boys work really hard.”
Ramsey would like to see welding professionals at the port work with welding teachers on classroom curriculum to make sure students are getting the skills they need to create a more seamless pipeline from high school programs to jobs.
The program, he said, is “an amazing resource for the community. We want those kids not just to have the knowledge from the classroom, but to get the experience for what it would be like as a career.”
For the first time over the summer, three Jefferson welding students landed internships with International Ship Repair. One was offered a full-time job but he decided on a vocational program at the school district’s Erwin Technical Center first.
Castrejon hopes more students will be able to land internships next summer.
“It validates the program,” he said. “Some of these boys were making more money than their parents were.”