Workforce Wednesday: Aaron Smalley is learning in-demand welding skills as he makes the most of a second chance

Aaron Smalley knows firsthand the value of a second chance. “I made a really poor choice when I was young.”  

Smalley is a graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High School. On his 21st birthday he drove while intoxicated and was involved in a fatal accident. He served five years in prison, and was released this spring.  

Smalley sought a fresh start and began classes in GRCC’s Job Training Welding Technician program in June. He was connected to GRCC by West Michigan Works!

“I’m a really big car guy and I’d like to get into engine building,” he said. “I feel like welding is a great skill to have as I move in that direction. That’s my passion.”

Smalley had no experience in welding.

“It was pretty intimidating that first week. Having that big flame coming out of the torch! I like it now. You almost get into a meditative state while you are welding. It’s like artwork, almost.”

Smalley likes the way the program is scheduled. Classes are hands-on and taught in a modern welding lab at the Tassell M-TEC, which is said is “really nice. Not what I was expecting.”

The program meets for 18-weeks for 34 hours per week and offers job placement assistance.

He said instructor Nate Haney “knows a lot to say the least. His brain is packed full of knowledge. I’m picking his brain for all he knows!”

Haney holds a Bachelor of Science in Welding Engineering Technology from Ferris State University and is an American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector and Certified Welding Educator.

As Smalley navigates re-entry, he highly recommends the GRCC Job Training programs to others who may be in a similar situation. He has found GRCC’s Tassell M-TEC to be a place where people can rebuild their lives.

“I was very anxious when I was first released. I’m trying to get some stable ground underneath my feet and this is the perfect opportunity to do that. It gives you a routine and adds some structure to your life especially with just getting out. It takes time to re-adjust to being out in society and the small class size and friendly environment is helpful. I like coming here.”

As a student, you will learn: shielded metal arc welding (arc/stick welding), gas metal arc welding (metal inert gas/wire welding), gas tungsten arc welding (heli-arc/tungsten inert gas welding), oxy-fuel welding (gas welding), cutting, brazing, blueprint reading, mathematics, metallurgy, problem solving, teamwork and communication skills.

Smalley is motivated by his parents and sister.

“I want to do right for my family and make good decisions. This is a perfect decision — a step in the right direction.”

This program is highly regarded by employers as a top trainer in welding and fabrication. Job developers are ready to help with the job search process. Graduates will be ready to begin a career as a welder, cutter or brazer – with the skills to meet the needs of not only local companies but national companies as well.

Smalley plans to finish his program in October, and might look into work as an independent welder. 

“I’m still young, and don’t have a family of my own, so I need to take advantage of these opportunities while I can. I look forward to being done so that I can hop right into the workforce.”

Additional support is being provided by the One Workforce grant. According to the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, there will be 34.7 percent job growth in welding from 2012 to 2022. The next section of Job Training programs begins, October 3, 2022. For more information: or 616-234-3800.

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