TAMPA — In hindsight, Todd Singleton says he left the Air Force at the worst time.
It was late 2008. The economy had crashed. Jobs were scarce. Little from his 20 years in uniform — not his work in information technology, combat communications and intelligence support, not his deployments to Bosnia, Qatar, Afghanistan and Iraq — helped him find a civilian career.
After trying a couple of jobs, Singleton, 44, of Riverview ended up in a new training program for welders at Hillsborough Community College. His son Sean, 20, joined him. They started in April and are scheduled to finish next April.
HCC administrators say the Singletons are good examples of the value of training programs in welding, auto repair and auto body work. Demand for the programs both from students wanting in and employers looking for qualified workers is brisk. HCC's welding program has 14 students in its day class, 15 more in its night class.
And it's not just a Hillsborough program. The class has attracted students from Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and even Miami-Dade, HCC spokeswoman Angela Walters said. Moreover, the college has a contact list of 200 more people interested in enrolling.
So when JPMorgan Chase offered a $250,000 grant to expand the program, HCC administrators knew they could use the money.
"It will help us to make sure that our students continue to have opportunities to improve their lives," HCC president Ken Atwater said. When the college announced the expansion this month, four prospects showed up at the training center the day of the news conference to ask about applying.
It might sound odd — a transnational bank putting money into blue-collar job training — but it's part of a bigger picture, said JPMorgan Chase Southeast U.S. regional chairman and former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.
Grants like the one to HCC are aimed at bridging a growing need for skilled workers in the local economy. Through 2019, Florida is expected to need 5,000 new welders with median salaries of $39,000 annually, according to HCC, the Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. and CareerSource.
In addition to JPMorgan Chase, the college also plans to team up with Metropolitan Ministries, CareerSource and the United Way Suncoast to provide referrals to the program, as well as counseling, child care, transportation and other services.
Over five years, the bank plans to put $250 million into skills training for a range of industries worldwide.
"We will try to provide opportunities like we're doing here" so workers can get the training and skills "needed in the marketplace, a community at a time," Martinez said. "It's all about skills at work."
In the Tampa Bay area, JPMorgan Chase gave the University of South Florida $235,000 last year to help veterans make the transition to higher education. And it has worked with Metropolitan Ministries on culinary education, Martinez said.
With JPMorgan Chase's two-year grant, HCC plans to expand the welding program with a new accelerated weekend format that could accommodate up to 40 more students.
The demand is there, said Rick Watts, vice president at Gulf Marine, which helped design HCC's curriculum and plans to offer students internships.
In the shipyards at Port Tampa Bay, he said, overtime can push pay for some welders toward $100,000 a year.
"It's very difficult to find good-quality, qualified welders, shipfitters and the other craftsmen that are needed in a shipyard," Watts said. "You can make a lot of money in the yard. Working in a shipyard is not for everybody. It's a different breed. It's hard work. It's hot work."
This is the second grant HCC was awarded this year to expand its E Columbus Drive training center.
In September, HCC won a $350,000 U.S. Department of Commerce grant to help create a diesel technology training center. Renovations on a 7,800-square-foot building are expected to take about a year.
While much of the focus of HCC's workforce development is local, Singleton said some of his young classmates might have 40 years of welding ahead of them and could find jobs all over the world. When someone asks where they learned their trade, he said, they'll say HCC.
"We want to give back to the community, just like we did in the military," he said. "I got out, and now I'm here to learn a new trade to give to the community, give my son that example and rock on."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.