OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — When Nick Leone puts on his face shield and gloves Friday during a national welding competition, the Bonner Springs, Kansas, man will close the circle on a journey toward learning the trade.
The TV show “Junkyard Wars” first peaked Leone’s interest in welding and metal fabrication when he was a teenager.
Now in his 30s, Leone graduates with a degree in metal fabrication from Johnson County Community College this year.
Friday’s national competition at Lincoln Electric's headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, will be broadcast in an episode of the YouTube series called “Clash of Trades” this December.
“Maybe I’ll be inspiring the next generation,” Leone said. “Some teenager will see that [Clash of Trades episode] and think, ‘Oh I can do that.’ ”
The manufacturing industry needs more teenagers to find that inspiration. Nearly three years ago the U.S. Department of Defense created Project MFG, which is based in Kansas City, Missouri.
The organization was born as a result of a 2018 study highlighting a gap for skilled workers in the trades caused by companies moving jobs overseas and current workers retiring.
“One, we don’t have the same flexibility in our manufacturing base we had in the past. And two, we don’t have the capacity to build the necessary components for the defense industrial base. So [the Department of] Defense sees it has a critical gap and a national security issue,” Ray Dick, of Project MFG, explained the Department of Defense’s interests in what appears to be a labor issue.
Project MFG creates "Clash of Trades" organizes competitions and works with school districts to highlight trades like welding, heating and cooling, machining and more.
Other organizations around Kansas City have also stepped up to address the skills gap. The Skilled KC Technical Institute launched last year as an affordable way for people to earn certifications.
Metropolitan Community College is relocating its welding and other trade programs to a new campus near East 29th Street and Troost Avenue, so that it is more easily accessible along the Troost MAX bus line.
Johnson County Community College, where Leone attended, continues to offer welding degrees and certifications to help students prepare for the real world.