Since its inception, the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy pledged to train local high school students to land technical jobs with major industrial companies.

That goal was realized Wednesday night at the academy’s first graduation ceremony as a select group of seniors from the academy’s inaugural class celebrated job offers with local companies.

Of the 35 students who completed the academy’s welding production program, five walked away with job offers in hand at places like Caterpillar, Central Texas Iron Works and Behlen Manufacturing.

Wednesday’s event including a “signing ceremony” modeled after draft-day events organized by the NFL and NBA. Signees received a company hat and T-shirt as their job offers were announced.

“I feel like a proud parent,” GWAMA Principal Marcus Walker said. “A lot of our kids come to us not ready for employment in general, and the opportunity to give them employability skills, teach them how to do a resume, how to be punctual, how to go to a job every day, and (now we) actually see that hard work come to fruition and see our kids be successful.”

All of the students received a marketing skills certificate that will enable them to seek jobs with the academy’s industry partners. The academy also gifted the students with tool kits of safety gear and welding equipment valued at $400, also provided by the company partners.

New jobs

Gavino Aguilar, a graduating senior at University High School, will work at Caterpillar. He said started the school year not sure what he would do for a career, but applied to GWAMA after hearing about the program from a friend and soon discovered he was naturally skilled in welding.

“I’m really excited because they actually gave us a real opportunity,” Gavino said. “It’s a well-paying job, too, and we’ve already agreed to some terms, so as soon as I pass all my background checks, I’m going to be an official worker. It’s going to be great.”

Aguilar and Jake King of Robinson High School both were selected for positions at Caterpillar. University High senior Zion Villareal and Hector Reyes, of Waco High School, were offered jobs at the McGregor branch of Behlen Manufacturing, while Thomas Staples is starting training for his new job at Central Texas Iron Works.

“This is the first job I’ve ever had, so it’s kind of (cool),” said Staples, who graduates from Waco High on Saturday. “I’m going to be relieved because I’m finally out of high school and I got a job, so it feels good. I won’t be out looking for a job.”

GWAMA opened in the fall as a specialized training institution to help 11th- and 12th-graders gain technical skills to pursue industrial careers. The academy also aims to build a pipeline of skilled workers in high demand with local manufacturing companies.

The welding program normally is supposed to be completed in two years, but the academy designed an accelerated one-year plan to attract seniors during its first full year of operation. Twelve juniors who are currently in the program will return this fall to complete their certificate requirements.

Joint venture

The academy is a joint venture between the Waco Independent School District, Texas State Technical College, the Waco Business League, Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and more than two dozen industry partners.

Curtis Cleveland, vice president of marketing for Central Texas Iron Works, told the GWAMA students that the company has a backlog of more than $150 million worth of fabricated construction steel orders because it does not have enough qualified workers.

“We are sold out (in) 2014, we are working on business for 2015 and 2016,” Cleveland said. “We’re hiring, we’re looking for good employees of the future.”

Even with confirmed job offers, most of the GWAMA grads plan to further their technical educations. TSTC awarded $500 scholarships to Jazy Mendoza of McGregor High School and Venancio Medina Jr. of Waco High.

Aguilar and Staples both will attend TSTC, and Walker said other graduates are planning to attend Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Arlington, UT-Galveston and McLennan Community College.

“We also tie in that college readiness piece, too, because it’s unfair to send kids out into the workforce without being college-ready and it’s unfair to send kids out to college without being workforce-ready,” Walker said.

“We tell kids it’s the whole gamut here. . . . We offer kids three exit points: They can go straight to work immediately, they can go to college immediately, or they can do a combination of the two.”

The academy will expand this fall, offering new programs in precision manufacturing and electronics and robotics in response to feedback from the industry partners.

In addition, Waco ISD trustees have approved expanding GWAMA’s headquarters at the former Doris Miller Elementary to double its capacity to 300. The changes include adding 30 more welding stations, renovating classroom space for the electronics and robotics programs, and constructing a new building for the precision manufacturing program.

Walker said GWAMA already has 289 applicants for this fall, and he expects about 200 students will be enrolled.

The academy started with just 67 juniors and seniors in 2013, he said.

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