COLUMBIA, S.C. — It's a typical class day for Ruth Patterson. She stand's in her booth at the Arclabs Welding School in Columbia, meticulously working melting metal together with her tools.
"I've always liked working with my hands," said Patterson. "I’ve always wanted to get dirty. I’ve always loved doing that kind of stuff."
That hands-on experience is why Patterson chose this program at Arclabs Welding School instead of a four-year degree.
“Instead of being at college all day and studying all day, I only have to be here for five hours," Patterson said.
When Patterson graduates, a job is expected to be waiting for her as the demand for qualified welders soars.
"For every five welders retiring, there’s only one entering the field," said Arclabs Assistant Director of Admissions LaSasha Breland. "And we’re projecting by 2024 a shortage of 300,000 welders across the United States of America."
Breland said there are even fewer women in the profession. Patterson is one of five currently in the Arclabs program.
"I think it just takes someone who’s strong willed and can take everything with a grain of salt," said Patterson.
Breland explained the school is expanding to meet the demand.
"We have increased our campus by 20% as far as our booth spaces go. We started out with 42, now we have 62 booth spaces here on campus," said Breland.
According to a study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research center, college enrollment dropped during the pandemic, but enrollment in skilled trades like welding, construction and STEM are growing.
At Midlands Technical College, Kevin Floyd tells News 19 applications are up 20% compared to last year.
"The three that had the biggest increase for the year that just ended would be healthcare, business and then STEM," Floyd said.
Floyd said one factor impacting these applications is free tuition. Midlands Tech, along with 15 other technical colleges, are offering free tuition this fall thanks to a $17 million investment from the governor.
The free tuition program is funded through the federal government's emergency Education Relief Fund.
The investment is expected to help 15,000 students.
For students like Patterson, graduating from a skilled trades program means securing a high-paying job without taking on student debt.
"I've already had about four different job opportunities be open towards me," said Patterson. "Trade schools, you can get sometimes the same education at a cheaper cost."