Connect 4: Knight excited to train students for the future

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

James Knight, director of the new Connect 4 program, said money is not what drove him to take the job. He is excited to help Carroll County students train for the future of industry.

Knight said he was never interested in teaching growing up, but that changed thanks to the many mentors he has had throughout his professional career. He said he first started working in education at North Arkansas College (NAC) as a lab technician in the welding shop.

“I started as a lab tech with Ron Carpenter. He was a mentor-type guy,” Knight said. “If he saw something that he thought a person should do or a direction they should take, then he would push you.”

He continued, “It was insane how good of an individual he was. I admired that aspect of him but also his work ethic. He could wake up at 5 a.m. and work until midnight. Then he’d get a few hours of sleep and do it again every day of his life. He’s driven.”

As Carpenter’s lab tech in the welding shop, Knight said he would work one-on-one with each student. He said it helped him practice his own welding more regularly.

After obtaining his American Welding Society (AWS) certification, Knight said he went to work at Metro East Industries Inc. in St. Louis, Mo.

“They rebuilt wrecked locomotives and rail cars,” he said. “I made good money that summer, and I came back and wanted to get my pipe certification in welding. That’s when Ron asked if I wanted to go to work for him.”

After working as a lab tech for nine years, Knight said he was asked by Carpenter to take over as the program manager and lead instructor.

“I said ‘No, I’m not interested. I’ve got a job,’ ” Knight said, “and he told me ‘Well, I’m gonna retire, and I wanted you to take this over because you know how everything runs and how to deal with the people in the office.’ I told him I wasn’t interested because I was making $3,500 a week after taxes working on a pipeline.”

He continued, “Ron said ‘Well, let me ask you a question… if you can help somebody, shouldn’t you?’ and hung up on me. I was like ‘Man, that was a dirty trick.’ ”

After thinking about the job offer, Knight said he decided Carpenter was right.

“I’ve got a lot of religious convictions, and I realized he was right,” he said. “If you can help somebody, you should help. That’s the whole reason why I’m interested in this C4 program because we’re helping kids get an education and training them to take part in the future.”

Knight said he could make good money through welding alone, but that isn’t what drives him.

“If it was, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said.

Knight said Carpenter wasn’t the only one pushing him to do more with his life. He said Ed Proctor, dean of business and technology at NAC, had encouraged him to finish his associate’s degree.

“Both of those guys really tag-teamed me on the need to get an associate’s degree and further my education,” Knight said, “so that’s what I started reluctantly. All I had to do was another semester and a half and I was done because I’d had plenty of classes that I took at NAC anyhow.”

He said another coworker at NAC, Joe Doster, also encouraged him to learn AutoCad, a design and drafting software application used for 3-D printing and computer numerical control (CNC) plasma cutting.

“He was another pushing point that encouraged me to broaden my horizons,” Knight said. “It’s incredible to take a big look and think about how many people influenced your life in school.”

After serving as the program manager and lead instructor for six years, he said he decided it was time for a change and started his own business, J & J Welding and Machining in Western Grove.

“Around that time, [Eureka Springs Superintendent] Bryan Pruitt called me,” Knight said. “He had been the principal at Bergman, and I had taught a lot of his high school kids. I thought he was calling about trying to get one of his semis in the shop, but he asked if I had thought about getting back into education.”

Knight said he told Pruitt that he was not really interested, and Pruitt encouraged him to speak with Rodney Ellis, president of the Connect 4 Board of Directors.

“[Rodney and I] spent a long time on the phone for the first conversation,” Knight said. “Within five minutes, I knew I wanted to hear what he had to say. There’s a certain language in the industry, and you can tell if the person on the other side knows what they’re talking about or not.”

He said Ellis told him about how the Berryville, Eureka Springs and Green Forest school districts were partnering to start an industrial maintenance program and would be interested in having him apply for the director position.

Knight said he told Ellis he was interested, and the rest was history.

The Connect 4 program, housed in the Carroll County Career Center in Berryville, began classes on Monday, Aug. 13.

“I’ve made a lot of contacts in this area, and I’m going to start pulling people in to help me set some of this stuff up,” Knight said. “There’s a lot more community involvement in this.”

He continued, “What’s really cool is that Tyson Foods has this big investment in the program but they’re being a facilitator, not a dictator. I’ve never encountered that before. I think someone at Tyson had an epiphany and could see more than two months down the road.”

Knight said Tyson Foods and other local industries have invested in the program because they know training students in industrial maintenance will help prepare the next generation of workers for the community.

“It’s very smart. People have been saying this in technical education for years,” he said. “I really see the need in this area and across the United States for more blue-collar workers.”

Three weeks into the program, Knight said he has already seen his students open their eyes to the opportunities they have in local industries if they complete the training program.

“Anything you want to do, you have to put some effort into it,” he said. “It starts opening their eyes, and they start seeing ‘I can do this. And if I can do this, then I can also do this.’ It’s why I like this industrial maintenance program.”

Knight continued, “I wasn’t sure I would like it at first because it’s so broad. But if you know a little about everything, you’ll be valued I think.”

He said he hopes he can inspire his students to succeed and broaden their horizons, just as his mentors did for him.

“The main thing that anybody in this type of field should enjoy is dealing with students and seeing their success,” Knight said. “I’ve got some guys and one girl who will get the job because they’re learning how to do it well. They’re excellent at what they’re doing. They just some knowledge behind what they’re doing.”

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