A family business that has helped 22 Charleston County high school students so far gain welding skills is the first South Carolina company to receive a U.S. Department of Treasury Maritime Administration grant.
Stevens Towing, based out of Yonges Island, is one of 31 shipyards nationwide to receive part of the $19.6 million in modernization funding that will increase productivity and expand local employment opportunities, the company said in a news release. Stevens Towing received $1.3 million.
“These grants will help small businesses do what they do best: build essential infrastructure while creating long-term jobs for American workers,” said Lucinda Lessley, acting maritime administrator.
The midsize freight transportation company was established in 1913, just south of Charleston.
“Logistics and transportation companies are an essential foundation of our country’s economy,” said Johnson Stevens, company president. “We are committed to doing all we can to help our country recover from the 2020 pandemic and thrive into the future.”
As a further commitment to the future of the industry, Stevens Towing has offered a work-based learning apprenticeship program for Charleston County School District students since 2017. The program teaches welding skills at Stevens Towing’s shipyard in partnership with Trident Technical College and Apprenticeship Carolina.
To date, 22 students from Baptist Hill High School in Hollywood, St. John's High School in John's Island, West Ashley High School in Charleston and a home school have gone through this program.
Stevens Towing has its own shipyard to maintain vessels, which includes 13 tugboats that travel inland and 50 barges that traverse the country. As a result, a large percentage of Stevens employees are welders and fitters, which the industry is lacking in skilled workforce.
The towing company is one of few businesses in the Yonges Island area, and Stevens said only a few in the community know how to weld, which has forced the company and others to search further and further out for welders.
“We work on a lot of local companies’ equipment as well, local ferry boats, local marine contractors and dredge companies, tour boats. The need is there to fix other people’s stuff,” Stevens said.
To helm the welding program, Stevens brought in former employee and welder William Holmes and local teacher Mathilde Dumond to help create a curriculum.
“Stevens Towing decided they’d like to partner with the local high schools for a workforce development pipeline, as well as a community outreach,” Dumond said. “Not necessarily to have a continuous pipeline of trained workers, but to bring in students to learn the trade.”
Students who participate come after lunch and are paid an hourly wage to learn welding. To date, five students have continued their education at Trident Technical College, with four taking welding classes and one taking computer-aided design and machine tool technology classes.
Four other students are currently employed by Stevens Towing.
Holmes, who started training in high school, tried to retire from Stevens Towing years ago, but has kept coming back because he enjoys working with the students so much.
“It’s very important. There’s always going to be a demand for welders,” he said. “Unless there’s something else that can replace welding, there’s always going to be a need.”