NCC offers a bright future for welding students, and gives back to the community.

Sparks are flying, the scent of burning metal is in the air, and the sounds of heavy machinery are buzzing. “That is perfect,” welding instructor Ken Thomas says during one of his classes at Nichols Career Center (NCC) as he fist bumps a student patiently waiting for evaluation. Ken runs his thumb over a weld connecting two pieces of metal before offering suggestions and sending the student back into the workshop to perfect the weld. In the NCC welding program, students learn skills beyond English and history — they hone their talents in a trade that could lead to a lifelong career. And local residents are noticing the students’ hard work. With the need for skilled workers increasing nationwide, career centers like NCC are a major resource to educate students and help fill those positions. Founded in 1976, Nichols Career Center mentors high school juniors and seniors from 13 area high schools in and around Jefferson City on anything from culinary arts to graphic design.

aerial view of NCC Jeff City's welding workshop area
sparks fly as welding students work on projects at NCC Jeff City

In the welding program, which is certified through the American Welding Society (AWS), students take two-year courses to learn various and intricate ways to cut, weld, and bend metal. These skills are incredibly useful, especially within a skilled labor shortage that the nation has grappled with for years. The AWS predicts the nation’s workforce will need more than 375,000 welders by 2023 to satisfy industry demands, and Ken routinely receives communications from businesses nationwide wanting to hire NCC welding graduates.

“Industries are looking for the best,” says Ken, who has worked at NCC for 16 years. “We’re a career and tech organization, and we’re teaching students a career and a skill that the industry is dying for — literally dying for.”

The welding program is split into morning and afternoon classes that have about 16 students each. But don’t let that number fool you — there is routinely await list to attend most NCC programs. Some parts of the program are still in a traditional classroom, but following lectures, students create projects in a large workshop where they have access to equipment and metal. Upon entering the welding program, it’s not just a school — it’s a job site. An NCC graduate himself, Ken discusses his own eyeopening job experiences to help students better understand job readiness. Besides learning about welding, students learn basic career skills such as punctuality, collaboration, receiving criticism, safety, critical thinking, and following instructions.

welding student's nearly finished metal sign in progress

“If you’re an individual looking to be educated, no matter who you are or where you come from, you have a right to an education, and that can start here at Nichols.”


“I strive to perform the best I can for these kids, but I also let them think for themselves,” Ken says. “I’m going to let them do their thing and figure it out. Each kid has to do their own crucial thinking and they have to cut, fit, and weld their own piece of metal.”

That job-like atmosphere is accentuated even more by various community projects the welding students get to design and sell. JC Parks enlisted the program to create entryway signs for the Greenway Trail, and the students made metal art sculptures for Capital Region Medical Center. Since then, farmers, business owners, and private residents have all requested personalized signs for their properties.

student working on welding project while another student watches

When these project requests come in throughout the school year, Ken works individually with students to complete spectacular metal signs and artwork. The program’s community projects particularly shine during the holiday season. At the end of each year, the welding program creates and sells numerous personalized signs and donates the funds raised by students to local organizations. The last few years, the program has raised over $7,000 annually for organizations. In 2022, the welding program donated half the funds to veterans’ organizations and the other half to the Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association.

“It’s real-world experience for the students,” Ken says. “I try to advocate for our programs out here by doing as many art projects as possible and the Christmas fundraiser.

“All of these programs do a lot for this community and students —a tremendous amount…It’s all about the kids and our future.”


Outside community projects, the welding program also partners with several businesses like DeLong’s, Inc. and Hitachi Energy, where the companies donate supplies, and the students establish industry networks. These hands-on experiences and networking opportunities are vital when students graduate and attend welding school or enter the field immediately. Photos of past students line Ken’s desk, and he will proudly discuss his graduates’ accomplishments. There is no shortage of success stories in the NCC welding program. Many involve women, something Ken emphasizes since welding is societally viewed as a masculine or male profession.

NCC welding instructor leading lesson via whiteboard

“Whether you’re female, male, Black, brown, what-ever — you’re always welcome up here,” Ken says. “If you’re an individual looking to be educated, no matter who you are or where you come from, you have a right to an education and that can start here at Nichols.”

“If someone is hesitant to learn a trade, NCC offers school tours and open houses to learn about the available programs,” says Avery Gerlt, a second-year welding student from South Callaway High School.

For Ken, it’s important that the community continues to advocate for more career centers if they want increased educational and employment opportunities for the incoming workforces.

“All of these programs do a lot for this community and students — a tremendous amount,” he adds. “It’s all about the kids and our future.”

Visit to schedule a tour.

student cradles latest NCC welding project
student focused on details of welding project as metal bends