Accident helps Surry Community Instructor assess life direction
by David Broyles Staff Reporter
DOBSON — There are accident victims who have a chapter of their lives closed when they suffer a lower spinal cord injury.
Surry Community College Welding-Lead Instructor Michael Dixon suffered such an injury in a motorcycle wreck, but he took it as a good opportunity to stop and look around to see where he wanted to go in life.
Dixon, who has been at his SCC post since August, had previously served as a welding instructor at Forsyth Tech since 2006. He said his motorcycle accident occurred in 1993 and left him a T 12 paraplegic.
“It gave me an opportunity to re-assess everything,” said Dixon who said at that point in his life he had never been to college. Rehabilitation counselors at that time typically steered their patients into vocational training in accounting and computers so Dixon went back to school and earned a certificate and diploma in computer information systems.
“I don’t like sitting in an office all day and that is pretty much what that job turned out to be,” Dixon said. His uncle, Benny Phillips, had taught him a lot of what he knows today about mechanics and since Dixon loved taking things apart and building from scratch he decided to take the plunge into learning welding and fabrication.
His next step was advancing to a post teaching continuing education classes and completed work to earn a general occupation technology degree which teaching.
“Yes. I had to take English and psychology to teach welding. Go figure,” said Dixon. In 2010 he became a full time welding instructor at Forsyth and once an opening in SCC’s department became available he applied.
“It was my chance to take over and steer the department in a direction it should go,” Dixon said. “So much of this field is now automated and Surry Community had three robots I can use with my classes. Once you learn the software we use you’re good for 90 percent of the globe.” He plans on continuing his studies with more formal robotics training at Lincoln Electric in early November.
Dixon said businesses which are contacting him are looking for graduates who not only offer skills in pipe welding and pipe fitting techniques as well as entry level mastery of skills including robotics programming and repair.
“The pipe fitting part is not that available out there in many areas,” said Dixon. “What the industries need is someone who can design the system, lay the pipe out and put it together. That’s a different ballgame from what graduates have seen before. Employers want multi skill levels.” He said the goal of training is to give students industry level credentials so they can come in the door of a business knowing important safety procedures and can drive a forklift.
He said he hopes to bring the welding program at the college “up to the cutting edge” and has long-term plans on having a submerged arc welding tank for students to train in. Dixon pointed out learning these skills will come in handy in the future because of the large amount of bridge rebuilding projects in the state and nation predicted in the next few years.
Dixon said he is looking forward to projects in the department to make it a more open air facility. He said the goal of the upcoming renovations will be to make the current space more flexible and easier to watch students. Currently the department is in three separate locations. Much of the work to the department, which is over 20 years old is being done by the students themselves.
“I read that 50 percent of the pipelines in America are 50 years or older,” Dixon said. “It’s not if. It’s when these will need attention.” He said many of his students are young and willing to travel. He especially enjoys the environment at the college with dual enrollment programs with high school students.
“These guys get a two prong education,” said Dixon. “They get the high school part and then real world exposure here with the older guys. This is a hands-on approach where I can make sure they get the skills they need. It’s not a 30 minute talk. I like to get to know them and understand what is going on in their lives. You have to develop a relationship with them. This can often help me understand what is happening in the classroom.”
Dixon said this change in expectations in welding is similar to NASCAR where teams had a specialist for each part of the cars. Labor costs have made the sport use technicians who, for instance, not only know shocks but the entire suspension system of the race cars.
“The one thing I’m a sticker for is safety,” said Dixon. “Companies are spending enough for insurance and don’t want to spend more than they have to. Safety is job one with us here. I tell them virtually everything in this shop can kill you. It took me 34 years to figure out what I wanted to do. I’ve like to say I’ve done all the jobs I know now I don’t want to do.”
He praised the work ethic of Surry County students and said welding is also being invented anew.
“We’re getting out of welding as a dirty way to make a living. We’re trying to bring it back to a noble profession as it was after World War II,” said Dixon. “In the 70s everyone went for the white collar jobs which are now mostly gone so America is going back to hands-on vocational skills but high level skills to program and fix robots are what’s the ticket. Eventually robots will mess up. It’s showing the real world connections. You need geometry to make a handrail. I’ve I’d been told as a kid I could build a street rod with math I would have been so there.”
Dixon said he is proud to be a part of bringing the profession back and said welding has given him money, job security and a skill none could take away from him.
“I have never went hungry. Welding’s been good to me,” said Dixon. One affirmation of this is him being awarded the 2013 Citizen of the Year Award by Winston-Salem Mayor’s Council Award for persons with disabilities.
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-719-1952.
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