FINCASTLE – Botetourt Technical Education Center lit up like an electric welder Tuesday evening when dignitaries from the U.S. Senate, Virginia House of Delegates and from the governor’s administration came to see the school’s new state-of-the-art advanced welding lab.

The new lab is a joint project between the Botetourt Education Foundation, Botetourt schools, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and local businesses and industry in an effort to increase the number of students who can taking the welding program and to bring state-of-the-art training for those students and for workforce training.

The 10 stations in the new advanced welding lab will accommodate up to 20 students at a time.
The 10 stations in the new advanced welding lab will accommodate up to 20 students at a time.

In a unique partnership, the new lab has taken essentially unused space at the school and furnished it with the most up-to-date welding equipment without any school funds. The only school dollars specifically allocated for the new lab is the half-time welding instructor position that will be in the 2015-16 school budget. DSLCC is providing funding that will make the new instructor position full time in the partnership that will provide not only student training but workforce training as well.

Botetourt Education Foundation (BEF) took the lead in acquiring funding for the new lab that is part of the school division’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. The non-profit has worked with the school division before on the highly successful “Books2Bricks” program and other projects such as the recent purchase of computer cases for the ChromeBooks the school division provided to high school students this winter.

The BEF is in the process of raising upward of $500,000 for the advanced welding lab. It has acquired about $350,000 and is working to raise the rest over the next five years. Bank of Botetourt has provided a loan to allow BEF to get the advanced welding lab open for this fall.

Signs on the wall in BTEC's advanced welding lab recognize those who have contributed so far to making the lab a reality.
Signs on the wall in BTEC’s advanced welding lab recognize those who have contributed so far to making the lab a reality.

BEF made an initial $30,000 contribution to get the project started. The Alleghany Foundation provided a $75,000 grant and DSLCC has provided funding along with local industries Altec, Dynax, Tread Corp., Arkay Packaging, Gala Industries and Roanoke Cement Co., and they were recognized at Tuesday’s event.

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine made a stop at BTEC mid-afternoon Tuesday before the formal tour of the welding lab. Kaine has been a strong CTE supporter on the federal level and has a background in welding. He taught welding as a missionary in Honduras, and his father ran a machine shop.

Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones, State Sen. Steve Newman, Del. Terry Austin and Del. Chris Head also attended the event along with School Board and Board of Supervisors members.

According to Botetourt County Schools, the BEF made the initial donation to the project. “This leadership, financial support, and their ongoing fundraising efforts have been instrumental in developing the other partnerships,” Director of Administration and Business Dr. Brian Austin said.

“The ongoing efforts of Brian Price and Pete McKnight furthered the initial concept that was fostered by Bob Patterson, John Alderson and Botetourt County Public School (BCPS) staff. Their vision and support will enable BTEC to support BCPS students and the Botetourt County community as well as communities in the Roanoke Valley and Alleghany Highlands,” he continued.

Besides the new welding equipment like this, the advanced welding lab also has a virtual welder that students will be able to practice on
Besides the new welding equipment like this, the advanced welding lab also has a virtual welder that students will be able to practice on

The BTEC welding program is dual enrolled through DSLCC. President Dr. John Rainone, Gary Keener and Mike Bryant have supported the BTEC welding program, instructor and students over the years. They have also been supportive of the advanced welding lab by obtaining grant funding for related equipment.

The school division provided program details that will best benefit students and the community, and these details have guided all fundraising efforts and related expenditures.

Superintendent Dr. Tony Brads, CTE Coordinator Lisa Barnett and welding instructor Troy Linkenhoker have been involved from the outset of the project, while BTEC Principal Jim Bradshaw and Austin have supported the extended efforts of the BEF throughout the process.

The school division, through its CTE Advisory Board, identified the need for upgrading BTEC’s welding program, according to a letter sent to potential donors.

“The welding industry and many businesses that employ welders are concerned about a looming shortage of skilled applicants,” the letter says. “The more than 100 companies in the Roanoke Valley that use a welding process have already realized an inadequate supply of skilled welders. For example, welders with even modest experience are now being considered for openings.”

The American Welding Society (AWS) and other industry research suggest that the average age of current welders is in the mid-50s and their retirement will worsen an existing shortage. Welding schools report that graduates have little difficulty finding work and some welding employers report difficulty finding trained welders.

“Specifically, industry is looking for employees who are ready to work in the high-tech, computer-operated, robotic environment that has replaced the dark, dirty, labor-intensive factories of yesterday. These education initiatives— combining classroom instruction with hands-on experience in labs and on the shop floor— will equip students to take the many well-paying jobs that are opening up as ‘baby boomers’ retire and manufacturing in the United States continues to grow,” the letter says.

In the proposal to prospective donors, the BEF was soliciting sponsorships and donations to convert an existing auxiliary area at BTEC into a new technical welding lab in an effort to integrate education and further career skills initiatives in order to build the workforce.

The new lab is designed to address the increasing demand for the course by county students and to help more closely connect education and industry.

Because there was more demand for spots available, BTEC had to use a screening process to select approximately 40 students for the welding program.

That meant numerous interested students were turned away each year.

“The new lab will allow BTEC to almost double the number of students served and have graduates who are prepared to better meet the new technology demands of local industries,” the letter says.

The new lab will serve as a state-of-the-art training facility for both high school students and local industry.

“The new facility will upgrade the training equipment available to be more consistent with current industry standards and develop potential employees with the skill sets required by the advanced manufacturing facilities of today and tomorrow. For example, the proposal includes a welding simulator and a robotic weld cell,” the letter says.

The new welding lab facility consists of:

• 10 welding booths (2 students per booth)

• 1 instructor’s booth

• Welding machines (SMAW, GMAW, FCAW, GTAW, CAC-A, CNC, and Manual PAC)

• Personal protective equipment

• Air ventilation and purification system

• Metal working equipment (anvil, nibbler, plate beveller, unishear, pipe saw)

• Metal working tools (clamps, vises, magnets, torch outfits, pyrometer, grinders, hand and power tools)

• Supplies (wire, rods, gases, tips, metal, pipe, etc.)

• Welding simulator

• Robotic weld cell