By KYW community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (CBS) — Master welder Joe Williams spent decades in construction, most recently at L-3 Communications, making nuclear submarines and battleships.

It was hard work, but his skills were in high demand.  Eventually he decided he it was time to do something more.

“So one day I said, if the demand for welders is so much, I wonder who is teaching them,” Williams recalled recently.

He called the School District of Philadelphia and soon discovered they had openings for welding teachers.  He applied, and within a few months he scored a job at A. Philip Randolph Technical High School, on Henry Avenue, as a teacher in the same program from which he graduated 30 years earlier.

“I mean, it’s the same desk, same blackboard,” he muses.  “My name is still scratched right there on the wall.”  Williams says that fate brought him back.

With hard work and in just three years’ time, Williams has breathed new life back into the program, which he says was defunct for several years. Since he took over, there are more than fifty students, with the first class of eleven seniors graduating this year.

“All my students have jobs waiting for them — good jobs,” says Williams proudly.  “I have a 100-percent success rate.”

 

(Five of the graduating seniors in the school's professional welding program.  Photo by Cherri Gregg)

(Five of the graduating seniors in the school’s professional welding program. Photo by Cherri Gregg)

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His students learn how to bend metal, work with hazardous gases, and read blueprints.  Williams says corporations have been so impressed with the abilities of the 16- and 17-year-olds he teaches that companies such as Airgas have donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and provided personnel to help his students obtain professional certifications for free.

“There’s no better advertisement than your students doing well,” says Williams, who boasts that his students, even while continuing their schooling, get jobs making $17 an hour.  “It’s a great feeling to have a classroom full of men looking at you, taking it all in, and executing,” he says.  “It’s wonderful.”

And Williams’ kids have class pride, sporting custom “Randolph Welding” jackets.  They also have a sense of pride and excitement about their future.

“I could be a really good welder,” says one student, Corell Garnett.   “My vision is getting paid $40 an hour at one of the best companies for welding.”

Garnett calls Williams’ teaching methods “unorthodox.”   They include forcing students to fill out OSHA reports or call in the fire trainees from Randolph High School if they make a mistake while training — steps they’d have to take in the real world.

“We want this to be as realistic as possible,” says Williams.  “I run a tight ship because this is a dangerous environment.  We’re working with explosive gases, very high voltages of electricity, fire.”

Safety masks, goggles, and steel-toe boots are a must.

But even though Williams is strict, he shows a lot of love.  This year he was named “Teacher of the Year” by the Lindback Foundation (see video) — an honor that made this disciplined taskmaster smile like a grown kid.  “It’s was wonderful feeling,” he said with a grin.

“He’s good,” agrees Garnett, one of his students.  “He shows us off on Facebook, and he always has stuff for us.  He’s a good person and he’d given us opportunity.”

As for Williams’ vision, to do more good by educating more young people and helping them get good jobs without college, he says, “If you can show a kid a way to make $40,000 a year, you can keep them off the street.”

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