Fabricating a Future

How a welding education can provide not just a career path and financial security, but also a new life

FORWARD BY NANCY C. COLE, 2013 PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN WELDING SOCIETY (AWS): Welding has provided opportunities to people that they never dreamed of. Personally, I grew up dreaming of traveling the world, seeing new sights and learning about different cultures. But, not being wealthy, I didn’t see how that would be possible! However, I was good at math and science and the engineering field was just opening up to females when I graduated from high school. So, I built on my strengths and earned a degree in metallurgical engineering. My first job after college took me into research. After our first son was born and I was returning to work, a person was needed in the welding and brazing lab. Welding interested me because it was like a treasure hunt. In a treasure hunt, one finds clues that lead you to other clues that allow you to find the treasure. In welding, one has to find the best combination of filler metal and process for the materials and parts to be joined to meet the requirements of the particular service condition. I found it to be exciting never knowing what the next challenge would be.

Cole is an AWS Fellow and Life Member, and she served three terms as a vice president before being elected 2013 president of AWS.

Stuck in a dead-end job, Ariana Fonoti struggled each day to support herself while dealing with a boyfriend who didn’t support her or her dreams. By the time her daughter was born, the young mother had reached the breaking point with the path her life had taken and decided to do something about it. She decided to pursue a passion she discovered during high school just a few years earlier.
When Becky Reeves-Kanipe’s husband was laid off from his job as an iron worker, she took action, leaving her office job behind to help her husband start his own business – and in the process she discovered her true career path.

What was the unlikely catalyst that helped transform the lives of not just Fonoti and Reeves-Kanipe, but those of their families? A welding torch.

A skill in high demand, welding offers not only a profitable, secure career path, but one that has the ability to truly change lives.

Fonoti’s experience with welding began with a high school course, which soon became her favorite class.

“I loved being handed a blueprint and being able to make something, the feeling of controlling the welds once that hood is down,” says Fonoti.

After graduating from high school, Fonoti continued her minimum wage job at a local fast food joint. She found herself blocked from going to college or pursuing welding by her controlling boyfriend (and soon-to-be father of her daughter). It was her daughter’s birth that inspired Fonoti to change not only her life, but her daughter’s, as well.

“I didn’t want my daughter to grow up and think that men are allowed to treat women like her father treated me,” says Fonoti.

After gathering the courage to end her abusive relationship, she entered the Job Corps, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor that provides technical training for low income young adults. Before selecting a career path, students in the Job Corps can preview several trades, and, though she was originally planning to study nursing, Fonoti’s passion for welding was rekindled as soon as she struck the arc in a welding course. Now she’s certified in MIG, TIG and stick (SMAW) welding and employed in Utah.

She’s also planning to head to college, applying to study for a degree in manufacturing engineering at Weber State University.

“I want to make a difference and be able to improve upon things; I want to show my daughter that the world is full of possibilities,” Fotnoti notes. “You have to go for it – I’m a million times happier than I was before I began my welding career.”

Learning how to weld also has changed Reeves-Kanipe’s life. Her role in her husband’s business started as the office administrator, but it since has expanded to hands-on welding. As the business took off, her husband needed more hands on deck, so he encouraged his wife to give welding a try.

“I picked up the stinger and fell in love,” says Reeves-Kanipe. “Once I put that hood down, I’m free. I’ve found my passion, and I’m thankful every day that my husband got me involved.”

Welding has positively impacted the lives of Reeves-Kanipe and her family; her husband and son work full-time for their business, and even their daughter spent some time with the company. Welding provides not just income, but entertainment – their Florida farm is filled with art and décor created through welding.

Both of these skilled women serve as shining examples of welding’s power to transform lives – but, unfortunately, it’s a power that many have yet to embrace. While the demand for skilled welders is great, the supply is limited. According to the American Welding Society, more than 140,000 new welders will be needed by 2019.

As older skilled workers approach retirement age, the need to replace them is significant, but many of the incoming generation of workers lack the skills and technical knowledge that U.S. manufacturers require. Skilled trade positions, including welders, electricians and machinists, have topped the list of hardest jobs to fill for three years in a row, according to ManpowerGroup's eighth annual Talent Shortage Survey. And, Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. (EMSI) notes that 53 percent of skilled trade workers in the U.S. are over the age of 45.

And, the problem is compounded by a negative perception of welding as a low-level career.

“There’s a huge gap between what welding really is and what the public perceives it is,” says Deanna Duché, Director of Welding Education at Zane State College in Ohio. “There’s a great living to be had as a welder. And, there are so many options – you can travel if you want to travel, be outside if you want to be outside. Unfortunately, people just don’t’ seem to understand the great career path welding offers.”

So, how to address the issue? One key solution is to find ways to engage youth in career and technical education, including through a vibrant recruitment program. But, to meet the demand for skilled labor, welding education programs must also make sure to address the skills and technology that current employers expect, including not only a high quality of welding, but a high quality of character.

“One of the comments I constantly hear from employers is that there are a lot of skilled welders out there, but that the problem in this day in age is getting employees who are reliable, that will show up on time and ready to work,” says Duché. “I try to instill these values in my students – or I let them know that I won’t recommend them for work after graduation.”

While she places a high value on developing her students’ character, Duché certainly doesn’t let technical skill fall by the wayside. She’s transformed the welding program at Zane State from a simple stick welding course to offering MIG, TIG, pipe welding and plasma cutting, with adding robotics courses to the curriculum on the horizon. Training students on the latest technology is key for helping them find work.

At Zane State, Duché focuses on letting students work at their own pace, as she recognizes that people learn at different speeds. If a student grasps a particular skill quickly, he or she can move on to the next lesson. If a student doesn’t grasp something by the end of the semester, supplemental offerings are available next semester.

“I realize that welding is not just academic knowledge; it’s requires hand-eye coordination. If a student is working very hard but just struggling to pick something up, I don’t want to punish him or her with a failing grade. We work together to help the students get supplemental courses they need,” Duché states.

She also places a high value on individualized attention and small class sizes. She also looks for students who are driven and ready to work hard. And that drive applies to any student, whether they’re just entering the field, or adults – like Fonoti and Reeves-Kanipe – embracing a new career, a growing segment of the welding world.

Going back-to-school for welding is a smart move, as even schools with a high number of graduates can’t fill companies’ demand for welders. Duché receives calls on an almost weekly basis from employers desperate for skilled labor, but she often can’t fulfill their requests. She’s even seen companies begin their own in-house training programs just to meet their needs.

While the skills gap continues to pose a challenge for employers, the good news is that welding continues to have the power to transform not only aluminum and steel – but people’s lives. Through dedicated educators and support from welding experts like those at Lincoln Electric, people like Reeves-Kanipe and Fonoti have been truly transformed, finding their passions and embarking on a fulfilling career.

Notes Reeves-Kanipe, “Welding has given me the freedom to run my own business, set my own schedule, make my own decisions. It’s given me my independence.”

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