Graduate Connections – Meet Charles Payne

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Charles, 24, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in New Jersey. Charles completed the seven-month Professional Welder program at Tulsa Welding School in Jacksonville in August 2023. 

Thanks for your time, Charles. What did you do before coming to TWS? 

Out of high school in New Jersey I first worked at Walmart. Then I went to Florida for a while; when I came back up, I started working as a cashier at Dollar General. In 2019 I applied for Amazon and was there until 2022. After a while I realized that “Man, this is a waste of time. This is a dead-end job.” I didn’t want to work nine-to-fives, and I definitely wasn’t making a lot of money. In 2022, I left Amazon and went to FedEx. After that I went back down to Florida.

Where did the idea of getting a trade come from? 

I told my dad I was really tired of working nine to five jobs. That’s when he talked to me about getting into the trades. I looked at going the electrician route, I looked at CDL (Commercial Driver’s License). I was doing my research, but I wasn’t really feeling any of it. Then he told me about Tulsa Welding School. We decided to go and see what it’s all about. I talked to Ms. Allison, my admissions rep, took a tour of the campus with her, and then decided to go ahead. I started welding school in February. 

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If you looked at other trades, like becoming an electrician, what appealed about welding? 

Well, if I’m being completely honest, I’ve been interested in fire and stuff since I was a kid. I’d seen a couple of welding videos here and there and I always thought it looked kind of cool. Like I said, I always liked fire, so after talking with my dad, I decided to try it. My first phase, the first time I struck an arc, I stuck it to the plate, I was like, “Man, I can already see myself enjoying this for a long time!” 

What did you enjoy most about your time at TWS? 

One thing I really liked about it was the instructors. I was really cool with a lot of them. I felt like they helped me out a lot, especially Mr. Mike Merilees, he’s a senior welding instructor 

over there. I had him for my first day and he really made the environment feel really easy-going. I also liked how challenging it was. Testing everything, trying to overcome any obstacles and struggles I was having and once I did get it down, it was just like a breath of fresh air.

Did you have times when you struggled?

Just on two things really. 6010 stick welding was hard, and then doing TIG on two-inch pipe was a real struggle for me. I never thought about giving up, but I was really beating myself up from not being able to grasp it as well as I thought I could. 

How did you overcome those challenges?

I was always determined to finish the phase. I stayed late as much as could. I did the morning shift at school, so before I started working at BAE I’d stay for a good extra two/three hours a day to practice. 

Let me stop you there, working at BAE? How did that come about? 

About three months into the program, I got a job at BAE Shipyard. I was a firewatcher for about four months until I finished the program, just being around welders on the job was awesome. After I started at BAE, I could only stay on for extra practice for a little while before I had to go to work. As long as I put in extra time, I felt like I could eventually get anything, and I did. Through repetition, I started getting the hang of what I was struggling with.

Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. That’s what the instructors say, right?

Yes sir!

Now I understand you met your girlfriend, ShayBreon, at Tulsa Welding School. 

I did. It was my second phase when I saw her for the first time. I was like, “Man, what is she doing here?” I really thought she looked way too pretty for welding, but honestly, I don’t like to judge people like that. Then, by asking a lot of people at school, I came to find out that Shay really knows what she’s doing! We started dating in school, and now we live and work together up here in Virginia.

That’s awesome, congratulations. So, where are you guys working?

We work for Tenneco in Harrisonburg, Virginia. They make automotive parts, engine components, stuff like that. 

Talk to us about money. Are you happy with what you’re making straight out of school? 

Yes, I am, but I always have big aspirations, big goals for more. But for right now, it’s a good starting point. I feel like Tenneco is a good place to get my foot in the door, get some experience, and burn. This is a completely different metal than we worked with at school, so I’m already on a new learning curve. I like the challenge. 

What’s your career plan from here?

I would like to end up doing shutdown work, like power plants. That’s where a lot of the big money is at, but I’ll probably have to put some time in before I can go traveling and do that kind of work. But welding is my career now. I have dreams and goals outside of welding. I really want to use welding to reach those goals. I feel like I can.

What do you enjoy most about your new trade?

I would say it’s the hard work. I’m always a person who likes to be on the move, always doing something active. That’s why I was never really into office jobs and everything. Welding, I don’t know, it just makes me sweat, and I like that. It keeps me moving. I also like seeing the finished product, especially laying a good bead. It just makes me smile knowing that I did a good job. In my job now, I’m building my confidence and that just gives me an extra push forward. Getting better, building more confidence is something I look forward to – like I said before, I like a challenge. 

Did you make many connections at school, people you could reach out to about jobs or if you got stuck with something? 

I got the number of the majority of people in my class; we all had a pretty good friendship, so I feel like anytime I really needed to, I could hit them up. Some people are up north. I know somebody who went out to Colorado if I’m not mistaken. Some people stayed in Florida. My friend, DJ, is still working at BAE. He passed a couple of weld tests and moved up from firewatcher to welder.

Excellent, it sounds like your friends are doing well. What advice do you have for someone about to start at Tulsa Welding School for them to be successful? 

Number one, I would say be determined. Don’t give up. If you really want to do welding, utilize your time well, and ask questions. There are no dumb questions. All the instructors there are willing and able to help you. Number two; stay late if you can. All those practice repetitions are needed, they will help you. And number three; if you’re doing overhead welding, I’d suggest buying a welding sock for your head to stop getting burned. That helped me out a whole bunch! 

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/Dallas).