The town of St. George, population 2,100, has one plumber. At Bishop’s Body Shop in Walterboro, three longtime employees soon will retire. The average age of a welder these days is 55.

Who will fill these shoes? The answers might just be found in the classrooms of the Dorchester County Career and Technology Center. Four days a week, in morning and afternoon sessions, students from seven Dorchester County high schools are learning skills and trades to make them employable as soon as they finish high school.

Teachers and instructors provide hands-on learning opportunities in masonry, carpentry, electricity and welding. In addition, students are taught auto collision repair along with automotive engine technology. In health science, nurse’s assistants are certified while others gain training as emergency medical technicians. There are also cosmetology classes.

More than 350 students across the county leave their respective high schools for additional knowledge with the hope and expectation that it might prepare them for a real job in the real world ... sooner rather than later.

Building blocks

When walking into these classes, I’ve never seen teenagers more engaged. Maybe part of it is that they want to be here and understand the end game. Some expect to find a job immediately.

In the auto tech class, two boys are trying to repair a boat motor. Across the work bay, a teacher and other students are underneath the hood of a Toyota.

On the walls of the auto collision classroom are spray-painted fenders hung like pieces of art. In the paint booth, an instructor shows five students how to apply water-borne paint to sheet metal.

Most of the carpentry class is outside working on a project. Instructor Reese Cumbee is on top of a gazebo with a circular saw trying to make students understand why wind, sawdust and plywood can create a dangerous combination on the worksite.

In the workshop, everything from birdhouses to book cases are under construction. There’s even a recent copy of one of my columns being used as a coaster for a can of varnish (hope somebody at least reads some of it before it’s wadded-up).

In any event ... get the picture? This is a serious hands-on approach to learning practical skills that will allow many of these students to pay their bills and provide for their families.

In the electricity class, the students learn the different requirements for wiring residential from commercial properties. Many in this class will enter the apprenticeship program at Trident Technical College. Teacher Bryan O’Neal tells his class that “computers are not gonna wire your house.”

Not for everybody

When the center’s public relations coordinator, Kara Pendarvis, visits the county’s high schools to recruit interested students, her pitch is simple: If you don’t want to work, this isn’t for you. Thirty-eight percent of the center’s graduates go immediately into the workforce. More than 60 percent seek additional training in their fields.

In the culinary class, Cathy Flood, after seven years in the food business and six years teaching at the center, is proud that two former students are line cooks in fancy downtown restaurants.

Katelyn Driggers, a senior at Ashley Ridge High School, tells me while grilling chicken that she wants to follow her dream of working in the food industry.

In other classes, I watch teenagers who want to be first responders learn about search and rescue. Hopeful nurse’s assistants listen as the teacher explains the do’s and don’ts of inserting a catheter.

In the EMT/paramedics program, 12 former students already have been placed on ambulances.

A sign near the center’s entrance says “feed your dreams and starve your fears.” The people of Dorchester County should feel pretty good about how some of their teenagers are being fed.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or