Disrupting Postsecondary Education

Sixteen years ago, I walked into a damp and dark warehouse where I was introduced to welding education. The Nixon-era warehouse was the now-defunct Center of Industry and Technology (CIT). After looking at CIT’s facilities, lack of business plan, ...

AWS Publications | April 18, 2023 | Careers And Education
Welding Digest ►  Disrupting Postsecondary Education

Sixteen years ago, I walked into a damp and dark warehouse where I was introduced to welding education. The Nixon-era warehouse was the now-defunct Center of Industry and Technology (CIT). After looking at CIT’s facilities, lack of business plan, and overall experience, it didn’t take long to deduce why the school only had a handful of students enrolled in the welding program 25 years after its inception.

I spent the next four years at CIT, using every day as an opportunity to learn everything I could. It was obvious there was enormous potential. But what we were not doing at CIT was addressing the welding industry’s major challenge — attracting young people and convincing parents and school administrators that trade schools were a viable alternative to two- or four-year colleges.

On the surface, the school seemed to have a marketing challenge, which was true, but the challenge went deeper. CIT’s student population was driven by government grants. It was clear we had a large group of students who lacked motivation and were, in many cases, at extra innings within their careers. Why were we sending middle-aged new graduates into a field that had an average age participant rate of 56? And without skin in the game, where was the desire to pursue a career in industries begging for help? Did we really want the public to think anyone could become a welder? These questions demonstrated remodeling was much needed within postsecondary education.


New School, New Model: Building Georgia Trade School

Thanksgiving week in 2011, CIT closed with a note on the door. In 2012, I formed Georgia Trade School LLC with my business partner, Joanna Vinson. Our vision was to bring opportunities to the Northwest Atlanta suburbs. Cobb County, where we located, is one of the 100 most-affluent counties in the country and is the home base for Kennesaw State University, a major university, and many large-corporation headquarters, such as Home Depot, Weather Channel, the Atlanta Braves, Papa Johns, and NAPA Auto Parts. If there was ever a place where 100% college matriculation was celebrated, this was it.

That September, we started with seven students. At the time, I decided to not participate in government loans and be a truly independent model. Those first seven students graduated and were offered jobs in the shipbuilding industry.

We began telling their stories in the local media, both earned and advertorial. Then we began to recruit at local high schools. When recruiting at high schools, I placed an emphasis on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs and the schools in the tony section of East Cobb, where homes cost more than $900,000. This may seem like a strange idea, but I was trying to prove something. If we tear down the hardest walls in the places where college-for-all dominated, then we could go anywhere and begin to really disrupt how a welder was perceived. I also wanted students who were academically strong enough for college and, in some cases, had attended college for a year or two but grown bored of core classes and sitting in a classroom. I had long felt young people were being failed by higher education and a program like ours could be life changing.


Adopting Digital Marketing Methods

We weren’t done upending and challenging what a welding school could look like. We were one of the early adopters of digital marketing, forming a partnership with a popular YouTube personality. That helped us expand our recruiting base nationally. I’m proud to say some of our most successful students have come from California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Florida. Networking would become a huge factor in building our brand. We embraced local business associations and the Cobb Chamber of Commerce. To this day, I tell our graduates that they either network or they don’t work. Embracing that philosophy, we close the school for a few days to send our students to events such as FABTECH and SkillsUSA’s Career Expo. We focused on merchandising, and, after learning that the Atlanta Hawks team store had sold more products to millennials than any team in the NBA, we followed their lead and created alternative logos.

Photo 1-Apr-13-2023-07-55-58-7518-PM


Fast Forward to 2023

Today, Georgia Trade School is housed in a 30,000-sq-ft historic building in the central business district of Acworth, Ga., 40 miles from the world’s busiest airport. Our 1200 graduates cover 20 states in a range of industries, including energy, construction, manufacturing, fabrication, shipbuilding, and film and television. When you watch a Hollywood blockbuster like Stranger Things or Fast & Furious, our graduates’ skills are on display. For seven consecutive years, we have been a Top 25 Small Business of the Year in a county with 56,000 small businesses and a region with more than seven million people.

Photo 2-Apr-13-2023-07-55-52-3274-PM



There are many great welding schools across the country, and our industry, postpandemic, is having a moment. Young people are rethinking their postsecondary options. But we still have much work to do. I am proud to have strong relationships with other welding schools. To me, they are not the competition. Our competition is ourselves and four-year institutions. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Education stated that 25% of young people were interested in the skilled trades. Today, that number has dropped to 20%.

Welding schools must focus on outcomes and tell those success stories to the broadest audience possible. Now is the time to be bold and unafraid; otherwise, we will have missed our best opportunity in a generation to close the skills gap.


This article was written by Ryan Blythe (founder of Georgia Trade School, Acworth, Ga.) for the American Welding Society.