A New Brotherhood: Veterans find civilian purpose in fabrication jobs
    Above: Zachary Wirth is an Arclabs Welding School graduate and nuclear welder with ARC Energy Services.
February, 2024- Veterans struggling to find meaningful work should consider using their GI bill benefits to attend welding school. “Getting out of the military is nerve-wracking,” says Zachary Wirth, a retired Corporal (E4) with the U.S. Marine Corps. “There’s a lot of [economic] uncertainty, and you just don’t know what will happen. You might be afraid of losing your home or your truck.” Wirth used his veteran’s benefits to attend Arclabs Welding School in Piedmont, South Carolina, and he is now a welder with ARC Energy Services, a veteran-owned company in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He’s earning thousands of dollars every week working on nuclear power generation shutdowns and turnarounds. However, his road to success had a lot of potholes.
In 2016, Wirth enlisted in the Marine Corps and became an infantryman. He served in combat at Helman Province, Afghanistan, working with the local Afghan army. He became squad leader and was later sent to Okinawa, Japan. He spent four years as a confident Marine, but re-entering civilian life proved to be a challenge.
“It was hard getting out. I was a squad leader. I was rocking it. Then, I got out and I’m working at a big box hardware store for $12 an hour,” recalls Wirth. “I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t find a job where I could provide for my family. I lost my sense of purpose and got into a messed-up headspace.”
Jonathan Crompton is a master trainer at Arclabs. As a retired Marine corporal, he understands both veterans and welding very well.
“You spend your military career on a strict schedule and routine, but once you get out, it’s gone. You don’t know what tomorrow brings,” he says. “Attending welding school and pursuing a career in welding provides veterans with structure and support. You know how everyone talks about brotherhood and the military? Welding is the same way. If you’re a pipe welder and you meet another pipe welder, you automatically connect.” “Post 9/11 veteran educational benefits are truly generous,” says Lydia Bennett, assistant director of career and student services at Arclabs. “Most veterans are covered for 100 percent tuition reimbursement for a certain period of time after retiring from the military. Many of those benefits can be gifted to the veteran’s immediate family, including children and stepchildren.”
“The GI Bill didn’t just cover my tool package and my tuition,” says Wirth, who graduated in March 2023. “It also gave me $1,500 a month for living expenses. This gave me all the security in the world to focus on welding school without worrying how I was going to pay my bills. Welding provided me the chance to do something with my life other than the Marine Corps.”
Wirth had “never done a lick of welding” before Arclabs, but he aced all his training. After two months, he had completed most of a curriculum that usually takes six months. Seeing his work ethic, the instructors moved him on to specialty applications, such as welding pipe and welding in restricted positions.
“Welding was an outlet,” says Wirth. “Welding took me out of my head. It is almost like meditation for me as I focus on my speed and the weld puddle, trying [to become] better and better with each repetition.”
Since graduating from Arclabs’ 900-hour program and landing a job at ARC Energy Services, Wirth no longer worries about what the next day will bring. His advice to other veterans is to pick a trade skill before discharging from the service.
“Learning a trade will get you back on your feet quicker, and you’ll make more money than you can ever imagine. Stick to the plan, and don’t get discouraged. Just wake up and keep on welding,” he recommends.
Arclabs Welding School, arclabs.edu