Billie Pajak, who grew up repairing cars in her back yard with her dad, likes to work with her hands. Now, the 12th-grader is honing her skills in the welding program at the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s Secondary Technical Education Program.
Friends told Pajak she’d probably be in the minority, but “I wasn’t afraid to go try just because I’m a girl. That wasn’t going to stop me,” she said.
Last year, Pajak was the sole girl in the welding classes at her high school; this year, her first at STEP, she is one of nine, a record for the program. In recent months, several of the young women, including Pajak, have gotten certified in different types of welding processes. That’s also a first for the school, said Jessica Lipa, director of STEP, which offers college-level technical training to high school juniors and seniors.
The welding program has a capacity for 25 students and “typically, we’re lucky if we can get one female in welding,” Lipa said.
It’s hard to say whether this year’s class is part of a larger trend or purely coincidental, but Lipa says that over the past couple of years, the school has made a special effort to encourage nontraditional students, particularly young women, to pursue the trades, she said.
It helps to have a female teaching assistant in the welding program who can show students “how much the welding industry needs females and what the opportunities are,” Lipa said.
Many people don’t realize how the manufacturing, engineering and welding fabrication fields have changed over the years. “People still think of it as working in old, dirty and rundown places,” but highly technical career opportunities abound as baby boomers retire and new jobs are created, she said.
No sign of slowing down
Bob Sand, a welding instructor at STEP, said it appears that the jobs in these areas are growing exponentially. He attributes that to new development, such as athletic stadiums, housing and office parks, plus an ongoing need to rebuild aging infrastructure. The Bakken oil boom in North Dakota has also contributed to the need for welders, he said.
It’s a stark contrast from the recession. “There were some bleak times when manufacturing was low,” Sand said.
The 12-year-old STEP program works closely with Anoka Technical College — they share a building in Anoka and the welding departments are housed in the same office — to meet that demand. “The thing to remember is, in this field, there’s more to it than just welding,” Sand said, adding that students can go on to become welding engineers, inspectors, teachers, salespeople and more.
Cindy Weihl, a spokeswoman for the Miami-based American Welding Society (AWS), said that right now, only 2 percent of U.S. welders are women, but “we are seeing a growing trend of more women entering the field.”
“We see it through our social media channels, we see it in the schools that we visit and we are seeing it more in the workplace,” she said.
Weihl said that’s the result of a collective effort by the welding industry to help women tear down the barriers.
The organization projects a national shortage of 291,000 welding professionals overall by 2020. “We definitely see women as an important resource to help us close the shortage,” Weihl said.
A passion for welding
Suzanne Lindberg, a senior at STEP, joked that she signed up for welding to “get away from girls. … you know, in high school, there’s all that drama.”
In reality, she appreciates having other young women welders nearby. She wishes more would consider this career path, “see it being done and think, ‘they can do that, I should be able to do that,’ ” she said.
She herself is partial to “stick welding,” which she describes as “sparky, loud and smoky.” At the end of the process, it’s as if “you get to uncover a little treasure,” she said. The result has a rainbow-like ripple pattern.
It’s also been encouraging to be a part of a three-person team from the school that took first place in one of the categories at the SkillsUSA Minnesota State Conference in March. Now, the team is headed to a national competition in Kansas City, Mo., in June.
Lindberg and her teammates created a metal cart that’s ideal for custodial departments. “You can always use another cart, like another pair of shoes,” said Lindberg.
Another STEP senior, Heidi Ashmun, says that welding taps her artistic side. It’s something that comes in handy for sculpture and she’s making all kinds of things on the side, like a trellis for climbing roses, for her mom.
In the future, “I want to be making things, ” anything from building foundations to workout machines, she said.
Ashmun has also found that welding can be a good way to decompress. “If things aren’t going well, I can focus on what’s in front of me. It puts me in a lot better mood. It’s something that I look forward to every day. I’m excited to get up and go to school,” she said.
Having other girls in the program breaks the stereotype and it “makes you feel like you’re not alone. It’s empowering, ” Ashmun said.
Gabrielle Dobson, also a senior, took a welding class this past fall simply to fill a hole in her schedule.
She wound up enjoying it so much that she switched her focus from the automotive track to welding. Now, she says that no day is complete without a little welding time. “If you go days without welding, you think, ‘why do I feel so empty? It’s because I need to go weld.’ Once you get the hang of it, you can quickly produce good welds. It feels good, like an inner pride,” she said.
The whole group in the STEP welding program, boys and girls, jibes well together, Dobson said. “We’re all taken seriously. There are no different groups. We’re all just welders.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.