A big STEP forward for Anoka-Hennepin women welders

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2014 - 3:49 PM

STEP, a technical school for 11th- and 12th-graders in Anoka, has drawn a record number of females to its welding program this year.

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Instructor Bob Sand, left, talked to STEP seniors Anthony Gunter and Gabrielle Dobson about their welding projects as Heidi Ashmun, right, worked on her welding.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA , Star Tribune

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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.

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