Bryce Johnson is an 18-year old high school senior who didn't grow up on a farm but says he inherited farm genes. In the last months of a COVID-affected senior year at Lancaster County's Lampeter-Strasburg High school, Johnson is in the final stages of preparing for a career as a skilled welder studying both at Lampeter-Strasburg and the Lancaster Country Career and Technology Center in Willow Street.
The Strasburg native has a lot on his plate, balancing his studies with a Supervised Agricultural Experience at Zimmerman's Hardware where he repairs small engines while practicing his welding skills for a spring program at M. H. Eby Inc., a well-known trailer manufacturer in Ephrata.
"I have been thinking about a welding career for the past several years and it's now just a few months away,” Johnson said.
Johnson knows skilled welding technicians are in high demand by service and manufacturing businesses, and as a high school sophomore, Johnson began to split his high school studies between Lampeter-Strasburg and the CTC. As a senior, he is perfecting his welding skills at the CTC site every day while completing his regular high school courses online.
As much as Johnson is excited about welding, he also enjoys tinkering with small engines, a skill he learned as a pre-teen from his grandfather.
"Farmers want to be self-sufficient and fix all their machinery but at times they turn to us when they need help,” Johnson said.
He said he was one of those kids who took apart and reassembled his toys.
"I always wanted to know how things worked and my grandfather was there to help me," he said.
Johnson's grandfather, Walter Pletz, was raised on a Lancaster farm and he introduced Johnson to small engine repair as a pre-teen.
“He even introduced me to welding before I could drive when we fashioned a new bumper for his pickup truck,” Johnson said.
Johnson's first real job was at Zimmerman's hardware in Strasburg as a high school freshman. He was hired by the store's long-time manager Doug Arndt and his first job was maintaining the property — cutting the grass and landscaping. After a summer in the sun, Johnson asked Arndt if he might put his skills in engine repair to use in their repair department and he has been a key player on their team ever since.
"Sometimes what we do is easy," Johnson said, "like cleaning air filters or replacing old gasoline. But there are other times when it can become head scratching. Working with colleagues, we troubleshoot the problem to find the hidden cause and it is very satisfying when we are successful."
Johnson, remembers his Lampeter-Strasburg ag teacher Janae McMichael saying to him as a freshman: "Everything we do is tied — one way or another — to agriculture."
Today, Johnson smiles and says he now understands a little better what she was talking about after working in engine repair for four years.
Zimmerman manager Arndt has nothing but praise for Johnson.
"We're going to miss Bryce as he is an excellent worker and we hope what he has learned here will help him in his career," he said.
Johnson began to think seriously about welding as a career goal after taking an ag course in welding and electricity as a sophomore.
"That's what really hooked me," he said, "and I began to investigate career opportunities in the field as I knew many Lancaster County manufacturing and service businesses employed skilled welders."
He investigated Lancaster CTC and enrolled in their high school training and certification classes.
This year, Johnson spends five days each week at CTC perfecting his welding skills.
"It is working out well," he said, "and having more time with my instructors has really improved my skills."
Johnson will do an advanced placement co-op at Eby to cap his school training, said CTC instructor Andrew Huber. Eby builds trailers and truck bodies and using both traditional and robotic welding in its manufacturing and Johnson will have the potential to transition into a fulltime position there after graduation.
Lancaster CTC research indicates that six of 10 high school students in their career programs go on to work in that chosen career.
"CTC couldn't have been a better match for me,” Johnson said. “And I know the call for skilled welders is increasing each year which will provide me with job security."
Johnson will also receive a number of college credits for his advanced work that would transfer to a two- or four-year degree granting institution.
The young welder understands only too well that welding is literally working with fire and a lot different from repairing small engines and there is an element of risk in the work.
"Certainly, I know welding can be dangerous if not done correctly," Johnson said. “Our instructors make safety an integral part of all the instruction."
Johnson also has been introduced to the latest welding industry techniques at CTC including the operation of robotic welders and plasma cutters used in many high-tech manufacturing operations.
“He's the type of welder and skilled worker we need in this country," Huber said. "Bryce is smart, always wants to learn and is getting better at his craft. He's not afraid to ask questions as he wants to become the best welder he can be. I could not be prouder of him."