Harris Lanier

Before starting a career arc in welding, Harris Lanier took culinary arts at her high school. She hated it. The only other course open was in core and sustainable construction.

The course covers safety for each trade, and following a 90-minute block schedule, students choose from career-related electives. “You’re supposed to center yourself on a certain way you want to go for your life,” Lanier explains.

“My teacher was so good,” she remembers. “He taught me a lot of things, and he told me I could go for carpentry. So, the next year I took Carpentry 1 and 2. I took Masonry 1, Electrical 1, and Metals and Manufacturing 1.”

It was in that final course that she made a real career connection. While many of her peers at Lee County High School in Sanford, N.C., were taking business classes in PowerPoint, Lanier says she preferred learning hands-on skills in the metals program.

“I can go into the shop and just love the smell of it,” she says. “I think it’s because I look at it like a piece of art. With carpentry, if you mess up, you have to fix it. But with welding, I’m never upset if I mess it up, because I still made it with my hands. And it just feels really special to me.”

In the metals class, Lanier’s love for welding bloomed, and an opportunity for an apprenticeship with Caterpillar unfolded. She applied, was accepted and signed up for a basic welding course through the Central Carolina Works dual enrollment program.

The course, offered through a partnership with her high school and Central Carolina Community College (CCCC), allows high-school juniors and seniors to work and study at the same time. The Caterpillar apprenticeship pays for the course at CCCC.

Participating students complete their final two years of high school while working and training inside Caterpillar’s Sanford fabrication facility and at the Innovation Center of Lee County. They also work 30 or more hours per week in the summer between their junior and senior years.

During her junior year, Lanier worked in the apprenticeship in the morning for about an hour and a half, then went back to the high school to take regular classes. Over the summer, she worked full-time helping to weld frameworks for skid steers.

This year, the senior is focusing on heavy equipment. She’ll be at the Innovation Center for five hours and go back to school for the last three, earning both high-school and college credits at the same time. Lanier will finish the apprenticeship when she graduates in the spring.

The student’s SkillsUSA résumé includes competing in Carpentry and Community Service at the regional and state levels and serving as state president. She also participates in volleyball, softball, swimming and cheerleading.

Not many welders can say they’re pageant winners as well. This year, Lanier wears the crown of Miss Lee Regional Fair. The title includes a $1,000 scholarship for college.

Fueling the flame

Pursuing so many activities would topple most people. Lanier draws on her parents’ example to keep going.

Her father operates a business that includes a gas station, a tire shop, “a little bit of everything,” the student explains. “He’s even operated a grill. He’s not afraid to try new things.

“My mom went to college, but she dropped out to marry Dad. She was a teaching assistant for 30 years and finally went back to get the final two years to become a teacher.”

Watching her parents continue to pursue their dreams motivates Lanier to constantly pursue her own. That, and the idea of breaking new ground.

“It’s just funny when you say, ‘I’m a welder’ and they look at you and they’re like, “Wow,’ ” she muses. “So, I guess that’s what it is: breaking standards and really coming out of a shell — and showing people you don’t have to be a boy to do certain things.”

Lanier plans to attend Wake Technical Community College after high school to earn an associate’s degree. Then she’ll look into attending North Carolina State University.

Afterward, she says she’ll ultimately end up wherever the connections she’s made with industry and education will take her.

For now, this young woman believes getting the perspective of employees who work with their hands will help her in the long run.

“I think you can’t really look at somebody and tell them what to do without understanding their job,” she says. “You really need to have both perspectives to be a good leader.”