BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A popular West Ridge High School Career and Technical Education program could soon welcome students from its waitlist into its classes.

Sullivan County Schools recently received a $25,000 Welding Workforce Grant from the American Welding Society (AWS).

Sullivan County, one of 16 total grant recipients, is the only district in Tennessee to receive the grant this year.

School officials said the money will help them purchase three new welders, as well as supplies and a few specialized pieces of equipment.

West Ridge welding instructor Paul Light told News Channel 11 he was attracted to the grant right away when he read about it in an email.

Light said he approached CTE Coordinator Debbie Madgett about working on an application.

“We would need the money to get the new equipment, stuff we were wanting to do to improve our program,” said Light.

Madgett said the district submitted the application in April and was notified that they would receive the money in June. Monday, a representative from the AWS visited West Ridge to congratulate students and staff.

AWS District 8 Director told News Channel 11, Sullivan County won out in a competitive process.

“It takes a lot of industry support and structure, effort, and also the administration to to meet the application needs,” said Thompson.

Thompson said AWS is eager to see programs like West Ridge’s grow to meet the demand created by an aging workforce in the industry. According to AWS research, more than 40% of current welders are over the age of 45.

Sullivan County officials also expressed excitement about building a future workforce. Madgett cited a Tennessee School Board Association’s 2023 project reporting that welding is one of the top five occupations for annual job openings and is expected to grow 10% in the Northeast Tennessee Workforce Region.

Madgett said 17 students are currently working on their dual enrollment Combination Welding Certification through Northeast State.

“When they finish those programs, they’ll roll out into careers,” Director of Schools Charles Carter told News Channel 11. “They’re very sustainable, making upwards of $20, $30 an hour right out of school with no debt and in a career field that they’ve selected while they’re still in high school.”

At present, West Ridge can teach about 150 students in its welding courses each year. Once the new equipment is set up, that number could run as high as 180.