Welding Student, Driven by Checkered Past, Finds Success
January 13, 2015 - Tattoos peek out from underneath the right sleeve of Justin Sellers’s brightly colored polo shirt. He doesn’t hide them or where they came from.
“I don’t need any more prison tattoos,” he smiles. “I wasn’t digging it.”
Sellers, 29, accepts his past. This becomes easier when you have the kind of today he does.
“I make over $1,000 a week now. Twenty two months ago, I stepped out of hi-max with nothing but a net bag.”
Sellers grew up comfortably in Augusta. According to him, he “was spoiled… lived in a plantation house, had well-off parents,” his grades were good, and he even had enough success playing high school baseball to have several colleges scouting him. But when he was caught with drugs near the end of high school, things changed.
This first incident was minor, but it derailed Sellers’s initial plans. He moved to Toombs County in late 2002, took his GED and prepared to enroll at Southeastern Technical College (STC) with the help of Melissa Rowell, an admissions secretary at STC.
“He was a young kid trying to find his way and made some bad choices along the way,” said Rowell. “I knew he was smart, and I helped him just like I would help any other student: I tried to encourage him as best as I could to get an education.”
Sellers had a mind to enter the medical field, so he chose radiologic technology and prepared to start classes.
“I hoped that getting him in school would help him to see his own potential and get away from some of the things he was getting sucked into,” said Rowell.
In January 2003, Sellers’s first semester at STC, he was charged with theft by taking, possession of marijuana and two counts of armed robbery. He would spend the next 10 years and three days in prisons across the state—“I’ve been in every level-five prison since I was 18 years old,” said Sellers.
Those 10 years taught Sellers what he wanted and how he would have to get it. He couldn’t run from his past, and he would have to embrace every opportunity. So, in January 2013, Sellers left Ware State Prison with his net bag and a mission: he would return to Southeastern Tech.
“With his past, the medical field was no longer an option for him, so we had to choose a field in which he could make a good living and that would not hold his past against him,” said Rowell, who worked with Sellers when he returned.
Sellers had a passing familiarity with a construction company in Swainsboro and knew that not only were there ex-convicts working there, but the workers made good money. Sellers had never seen a welding machine in his life, but he had this chance, so he took it. The results were almost immediate.
“I give credit where credit is due: this course and Michael Crumpler changed my life,” said Sellers.
The Vidalia campus’s welding program, headed up by Michael Crumpler, became a crucible for Sellers and Crumpler challenged and guided him the same as any other student.
“I take each student’s success very seriously,” said Crumpler. “I try to ensure I’m giving them the best training and educational experience possible. I left the welding industry with a great name and reputation, and today, my name and reputation is still good with former graduates, and I plan to keep it that way by doing my very best regardless of a student’s past.”
“Even when I’m struggling with something, [Crumpler] doesn’t look at me like, ‘Oh, you’re 29, you’ve been to prison, you’re going back to prison,’” said Sellers. “When I get stuck, he treats me just like the guy next door to me who never made a mistake. If he had been a humbug teacher, I don’t know if I would’ve made it.”
As he studied and practiced, he found he was enjoying the work. Crumpler recalls Sellers coming in to learn and practice outside of class. The extra hours added up and his enthusiasm showed in his work. Before long, businesses were interested.
In the early part of 2014, Sellers went to Great Dane in Statesboro after they called him looking for welders. Sellers took the company’s welding test alongside a group of prospective employees, and afterwards, all the hopeful test-takers waited in a human resources office.
“A guy comes back to us, looks at me and says, ‘He’s the best in the group,’” said Sellers.
Sellers started at Great Dane in February and made an impression quickly. Over the course of one week in April, he was the only welder working in his department, which usually rolls out 25 trailers in a week. They sent out 41 that week.
“The plant manager came to me one day—which happens all the time now—and said, ‘Hey Justin, we need you to come in an hour early because we’ve got a $225,000 trailer that needs your attention.’ And 22 months ago, I was beating on a door, asking for my breakfast,” said Sellers.
Today, Sellers is a Team Leader at Great Dane, supervising the work he used to do himself. In the space of a year, he’s moved from new hire to three steps from the top of the ladder.
Sellers’ success has stretched beyond the classroom and workshop, as well. He just bought a house in Lyons—“This time two years ago, I had what? A cell”—where he lives with his girlfriend, a nursing student also studying at STC.
This new career, originally just a means to an end, has given much to Sellers, and perhaps most importantly, it fulfills the mission he set while standing outside of Ware State Prison, net bag in hand.
“I just love it,” said Sellers. “I can’t wait to get there and just do my thing. I know now that I’ll never be in the hole again, I’ll never wear handcuffs again and I’ll never work for less than $1,000 a week again.”
Sellers’s summation of his journey is simple.
“You can teach an old dog new tricks. You dang sure can.”
For more information on careers in welding, visit www.southeasterntech.edu or call 912-538-3100 or 478-289-2200.