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SPARKING OPPORTUNITIES: Entry-level welding jobs pay $16 to $19 per hour.

Women Who Weld

A new program at Pine Technical and Community College gives women hope and a better way to provide for themselves and their families.

By Lynette Lamb

Last summer, Rose Zellman, 29, was working for modest pay at a motorcycle shop in Rush City.

Today she is a trained welder at Northland Process Piping in Mora, making significantly more money than she was a year ago.

What happened in the interim? Zellman participated in a free five-week basic welding course for women offered by Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City. A $329,000 grant to the college from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is funding seven sessions of this introductory welding program for women. As of early February, the fifth session was under way.

“We started to get feedback about Central Minnesota’s workforce shortages in manufacturing,” said Joe Mulford, president of Pine Technical and Community College. “So we started thinking about ways to help in that area and also to get some non-traditional applicants for these jobs.”

Programs like these are filling gaps in sectors of the region’s economy that are in dire need of workers, said Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation vice president for community and workforce development. “Minnesota is facing a worker shortage of up to 100,000 people through the year 2040—due in part to demographics, with the Baby Boomers starting to retire and leave the workforce, and the younger generation is not present in as large a number.”

Overcoming Obstacles
Minnesota exports more skilled workers than it imports, “so anything the Foundation and our partners can do to develop the skills of people who want to live and stay in Minnesota is one of the best investments we can make right now,” said Hickman.

The grant from DEED has allowed Pine Tech to recruit and train up to 12 women for each of the 120-hour sessions. Because classes are held weekdays from 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., the community college staff realized that getting women through the course would involve far more than just helping them inside the classroom. “Child care is a big barrier for many women,” said Kris Hanson, who serves as education/employment advisor for the program. So is transportation, especially when you consider that women are coming to the program from communities throughout the region.

Hanson’s role, then, is to offer full support services to students, helping them find child care—even offering it through the North Branch Educational District during one session. She also assists with transportation, including gas money.

In addition, Pine Tech brings in all the traditional college support resources, such as counselors. “We are giving these students the full spectrum of college support services,” said Mulford.

The results have been worth all that planning and effort, said Hanson. Typically about eight to 10 women from each 12-person class graduate from the program and “about 70 percent of our graduates have found employment, most in welding and manufacturing and most in the area in which they choose to live,” she said. Some are waiting to find a job closer to home. And others, such as 46-year-old Rachelle Busch of Harris, Minn., are putting off the job hunt for other reasons. “I graduated December 5,” said Busch. “But I’m waiting until April to seek work because that’s when my youngest son will get his driver’s license and no longer rely on me to be his chauffeur.”

Busch’s father was a welder for 50 years, and she has long been interested in the profession. After staying home for nearly two decades to raise her children, she began seeking work but found she couldn’t land an interview for even a minimum-wage job. Next, she explored a two-year welding program but discovered that the tuition and hours were not feasible for her family.

When she found Pine Tech’s program, she said, “I was so excited. The location and hours lined up perfectly for me and I knew this was an amazing opportunity.”

Excitement soon turned to fear, though, when Busch realized “I would have to leave the comfort zone of my world and put myself out there. I asked myself, Am I too old for this? I’m not good at math. I’ll feel awkward.”

Her fears were quickly put to rest by Hanson, who Busch said “offered us such an optimistic view of what we could hope to accomplish in the program.” She also credits instructor Denny Long, whose “knowledge, patience, and good humor” soon put Busch and her classmates at ease.

Mentors Matter
The fledgling women welders have also been supported by mentors such as Traci Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine in Stacy, Minn., and a member of the Initiative Foundation’s Board of Trustees. “Because we’re in sheet metal fabrication, we employ welders, and we’re a women-owned business, Pine Tech called on us,” said Tapani. “They wanted us to engage with the women in this program so they could see someone who looks like them who works in a manufacturing field.”

Tapani starts out by speaking to the class about her quarter century of experience in the industry. Next, the students tour Wyoming Machine, with an in-depth look at its welding department.

Finally, Tapani’s company is among those who administer the American Welding Society exam at the conclusion of the course. “The students spend about two hours with our lead welder getting up to speed on our equipment,” said Tapani, “and then we evaluate their test results to see if they have passed industry standards.”

Once students have done so, they can find entry-level jobs in the welding industry, earning $16 to $19 per hour. That’s a significant improvement over the $9.50 an hour many were earning before—if they were working.

The program, of course, is only the first step in training a welder, Mulford concedes. Better wages and jobs will come with more experience and practice. But it’s enough to “get them in the door.” Next fall, Pine Tech will start a credit-based nine-month welding program for those who seek to extend their training.

In the meantime, Mulford, who has attended every graduation, said, “this program has given women hope and new direction, and a better way to provide for themselves and their families.”

The graduates themselves agree. Said Zellman, “I’m extremely thankful I could take the class and improve myself.”

“I feel like I have a new future bright with opportunities,” added Busch. “I have a confidence I didn’t have before.”

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