Manuel, 46, from Houston, Texas, graduated from the Welding Specialist program at Tulsa Welding School & Technology Center in Houston. Manuel finished class in mid-August 2019. He won Top Welder and had perfect attendance. He was also the valedictorian at his graduation ceremony in October.
Thanks for your time, Manuel. Tell us what you did after high school.
I grew up in a bad neighborhood, which is no excuse, but I was going down a bad road. I wound up being incarcerated as a teenager, so I didn’t finish high school. I got my GED in prison, came out and started having a family at a young age. I had to work. Had it not been for my wife Amanda and her parents, I’d either be dead or in jail. We’ve been together since I got out of prison in ’91.
What brought you to welding school in your mid-40s?
I wanted to change careers. I’m kind of burned out. I’ve been in the auto glass and autobody industry about 23 years. I love working on cars. That’s what got me started with welding. I basically did some spot welding on cars—repairing and patching panels with welds. But nothing like the welding they teach you at Tulsa.
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I work for a small independent auto glass shop. Me, my wife and my mother-in-law all work there. It’s actually a pretty cool deal, but I’m as high as I’m going to go. I currently make $22 an hour, so it’s not a bad living, but I’m too good at what I do. I was hoping to become an in-shop guy, but my boss wants me out on the road because he makes more money with me out there! I just figured it was time for change.
Why did you decide on welding?
I’ve always been curious about it. It’s something I wanted to learn. Now that my family is grown—my youngest is 25—I figured why not? My nights are free. My wife and I discussed it last year when my father-in-law was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. My wife work,s but she was going to have to quit working so she could tend to her father, and eventually her mother. I needed to find an industry that starts you off kind of high, and I also wanted something that would be kind of fun for me. That’s why we went with welding.
So you took a welding school tour?
I took a tour and loved the school. The program seemed really good. They offered night classes, so I could work all day, go home and tend to my father-in-law a little bit, and then get to school for 6:30 p.m. I’m one of those guys that learns fast, and I took a liking to it. I love welding. I’ve always been a hands-on type of guy. It just clicked; it became second nature.
What did you enjoy most about Tulsa Welding School?
The instructors were great. If there was something you didn’t understand or couldn’t get, you might feel dumb to ask a question, but the instructors never made you feel dumb. They’d take the time to show you how they do it and throw ideas at you. They get down and dirty with you. They help you find you a way to learn it. If you want to learn, they will get you to where you need to be. I also loved the fact that everything is hands-on. I’m not book smart. I’m better working with my hands.
Where are you working?
Unfortunately, my father-in-law passed away three days before I finished my classes. Because he is a Vietnam veteran, he wanted a full military send-off and it’s taking a while to get him into the Veterans Cemetery. I didn’t want to start a new job and then have to take a couple of days off for a military funeral. That would make me and the school look bad. So I’m still currently employed with the glass company. I’ve had a couple of opportunities, but I’m trying to get all this situated for him and my wife before I get at it.
Our condolences on your family’s loss. What kind of welding do you hope to do?
I’m excited by TIG welding. It’s awesome. I’m excited to see what opportunities I can find in that when I get all this situated, hopefully within the next month or so. Because of my age, I need to get out there and get this going as soon as possible if I want to advance in this career.
Are you working with the school’s career services team?
The school is awesome at sending you job leads. They will even help place you. If you give them your résumé, they will send it to companies. This school goes above and beyond. You couldn’t ask for more. I love being part of the alumni. I get calls almost daily from Marquis in Career Services , asking about the status of everything. Once you graduate, you have all the opportunities you could hope for. Fortunately, we live in Houston, so we have the ship channel, the shipyard, a UTLX plant, the oil and gas fields. There are a lot of opportunities here.
I understand you might even consider teaching one day.
Yes. Because I’d finish a lot quicker, some instructors had me help out my classmates or other students. I’m not going to lie, I kind of took a liking to that! I enjoyed teaching the younger guys who were ready to learn. I didn’t teach just anybody. If you didn’t want to learn, I wasn’t going to show you. Some of the instructors said I should think about teaching. I have thought about it. I also like the idea of following the inspector path, but I need to get at it pretty soon!
What do you enjoy most about welding?
The creativity. Making something, fixing something, with my hands; something that really is unbreakable unless you take a grinder or torch to it. I talk to some of my buddies who have welded buildings, bridges, things that will last longer than a lifetime—that’s something to be proud of. Even a wrecked autobody panel—to be able to weld it, fix it, and make it nice again. That’s something else.
Did you make some lasting connections at TWS?
I made friends for life with some of the instructors. I was a similar age to many of them. A couple of us ran in the same circles back in the day. One of them was thinking about going back on the pipeline and was willing to take me with him. Of course, a lot of the students were a lot younger than me, but being able to give them advice and guidance, to bounce ideas off one another, was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’m still in touch with a lot of them, we exchange text messages about jobs and opportunities.
What advice would you give to students for them to be successful at TWS?
Stay focused and determined and you can accomplish anything. Follow what the instructors tell you. That’s what is going to get you the jobs out there. If you’re an older guy, don’t think age has anything to do with it. Part of me thought I was too old to learn something new, to go back to school. You’re never too old to follow your dreams and get as far as you can in anything that you do. I pushed myself every day. I was the first one there, the last one to leave. I got everything that I could out of the program, and it actually made me a great welder!
If you’re a TWS graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), program, and campus name (Tulsa/Jacksonville/Houston).