Minnesota West’s Brad Thomas’ personal comeback helps launch the next generation of welders
Brad Thomas, a customized training services coordinator at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, takes justifiable pride in the achievements of his team at this year’s SkillsUSA welding competition for Minnesota. SkillsUSA is a nationwide career and technical student organization with more than 395,000 high school, college and middle school students and professional members enrolled in training programs.
For one thing, the six students who comprised Thomas’ team—three adults, three high school students—were the first team to represent Minnesota West (formerly Worthington Community College) in 23 years. For another, five of the six placed in the top 25 statewide. And one high school student finished in third place.
Plus, Thomas has to feel good about how Minnesota West’s surging welding program emblemizes his own professional turnaround.
Just four years ago, Thomas was an unemployed welder and single parent trying to raise four teenage sons in a $500 per month trailer house in Minneota. A construction accident had left him with a broken back that would require an 18-month convalescence and would keep him from ever returning to his once lucrative career as a construction welder.
Thomas attained a welding degree in 1986 by attending post-secondary courses while still attending Canby High School. Two years later he received a degree as a construction electrician, and he became a master electrician at age 28. He then went on to own his own business. “I’ve wired just about everything from an outhouse to an ethanol plant.”
A few months into his back recovery, he stopped by the weld shop at a technical high school in Marshall, after dropping his sons off for class. There, he encountered Danny Long, who had been Thomas’ welding instructor in 1986.
They hadn’t talked in almost 30 years. Long asked what Thomas was doing. “Going crazy,” he said. “I’ve worked since I was 13 years old.” Long invited Thomas to job-shadow him at the school, which he did every day for two months. In January, the school offered him a teaching position.
The following year Thomas became a customized training coordinator at Minnesota West.
In that position, he oversees the welding program at Marshall Area Technical Education Center, a part of Marshall’s public schools that offers students more individualized training. In its second year, the program’s popularity grew from eight students to two cohorts of 12 students each. This year, he expects to have 15 students in each class by permitting adult students to enroll, as well.
Thomas considers it a mission. “The trades are suffering really bad right now,” he says, in part because of a long absence in priority from public schools. “We’re headed for a train wreck.”
Thomas says schools largely abandoned the trades about 25 years ago, doing away with high school technical programs, such as wood or metal shops. “They said you weren’t going to go anywhere in this country unless you had a four-year college degree.” And now he says, for every two electricians that edge toward retirement, “we’re lucky to get one youngster that’ll come into the trade.”
His message to students: “If you’re willing to work with your hands and willing to learn a trade, you’re setting yourself up on a very good career path that’s going to be very, very lucrative by the time you get to be my age.”
The program helps enculturate students for the workplace, not the classroom. “We run that program just like we would if they were punching into a welding job,” he says. “Everybody’s accountable; everybody’s expected to act like an adult ... zero tolerance for cell phones.”
“You can just see it over time, as kids keep progressing, how they start maturing into that position,” Thomas says. “Not a hundred percent, obviously, but at least we’re getting them the groundwork to get them steered in the right direction, where otherwise they wouldn’t have had that.”
“That tells me that we’re doing the right thing,” he says, “or at least we’re moving in the right direction.”