Archdale, NC -- These days, it seems like there's a video game that simulates just about everything. But at one local community college, students are using virtual reality to help them learn real skills.
"We don't need any more American Idols," Joel Leonard said flatly. "We need more welders."
Leonard is passionate about engineering and welding. He calls himself an advocate for the engineering industry. And Saturday, students at Randolph Community College and some local high schools got to see what has him so fired up.
"I go around the country with this welding gadget, because I'm a big supporter of it, and they can't believe how realistic it is," he said.
The gadget is called a Vertex 360. And Leonard, who lives in the Piedmont, didn't have to do much traveling to see this one in action.
It's a permanent fixture in a welding classroom at RCC's Archdale campus. The school paid upwards of $50,000 for the machine, but Leonard and teachers here believe it'll pay off big time for the school, its students and the high schoolers who want to see what it's all about.
"It can turn gamers into welders," Leonard said. "They can actually learn the angles, the speed, the level of contact that they need. They'll actually get familiar with the sounds, the sights, because it's actually all virtually simulated."
According to Leonard, the average age of an American welder is 55. He says the American Welding Society believes the country will need more than 500,000 new welders by the year 2018. Welding jobs can offer good pay. And he -- along with instructors at RCC -- hopes the machine offers youngsters practice and perspective on a potential career.
"If you screw up, you don't have to go in and sand something down, spend an hour prepping it to get it ready to weld," Leonard said. "You just hit reset. Boom, you can do it again."
That's definitely one of the benefits the high schoolers spotted.
"You ain't getting burnt and caught on fire and stuff like that if you don't know what you're doing," Trinity High School senior Travis Norris said.
Norris doesn't think he'll pursue a career in welding, but he says he's certainly learning from what the simulator has to offer.
"Yeah, it's a good tool for practice," Norris said. "It teaches you patience and you really gotta know what you're doing to do it."
RCC is one of only a handful of schools in the southeast that have this sort of simulator. Leonard says RCC should be commended for offering the technology to its students and for allowing local high schoolers to try it out.
WFMY News 2