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Watch out, boys… here comes America’s future!

Photo courtesy Link Lima/Makerfest Lima, Ohio.

MakerFest showcases four women welders adding a much needed lift to the manufacturing talent pool

Lima/Allen County looms large as skilled trade job generator – and it’s women stepping underneath the hood to help the local workforce needs

Story by Doug Arthur
Allen Economic Development Group

Lima, Ohio, is clearly a manufacturing town. Sure, there are lots of other kinds of businesses in Lima and Allen County, pretty much what you’d expect from a Midwest town with a growing population of 103,000 – healthcare, retail, financial services, energy, food service, education, and the public sector. Plenty of choices.

But manufacturing is at the heart of this little pearl of a city in the middle of the Heartland that’s home to big-time operations – Procter and Gamble’s liquid detergent plant, Ford’s F-150 engine plant, and the U.S. Army’s M1A2 battle tank factory. And dozens of other manufacturers of all kinds and sizes, offering a terrific, affordable quality of life to the people who call Allen County home.

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But there are some holes in the workforce. There are certain jobs that the employers of Allen County just can’t seem to find enough qualified people to fill. For one, in Lima, there’s a real shortage of welders. There just aren’t enough qualified local welders to meet local demand – immediate, near-term, or projected.

At Diamond Manufacturing of Bluffton, welders fuse together steel racks for auto industry customers such as Ford, BMW, Honda, and GM. The need for skilled welders is constant, says General Manager Gene Heitmeyer.

“Business is good,” Heitmeyer said. “We’ve been growing at a terrific pace, and our workforce is almost 500 percent bigger than we were four years ago. But to continue this kind of growth, we need more qualified welders, a lot more.”

And he’s tapped out the typical sources.

Enter Sierra, Brooke, Tashara, and Tracey.

These four girls have several things in common. They are all energetic, outspoken young ladies who attend various west central Ohio high schools. They are graduating this spring, and they are all eagerly studying to be welders.

Oh, and one more thing: they’re good at welding. Really, REALLY good.

Sierra Mark, Brooke Brown, and Tashara Mays at Makerfest 2015, Lima, Ohio's new career expo showcasing manufacturing and the skilled trades.

Sierra Mark, Brooke Brown, and Tashara Mays at Makerfest 2015, Lima, Ohio’s new career expo showcasing manufacturing and the skilled trades.

At MakerFest 2015, Lima, Ohio’s new career expo showcasing manufacturing and the skilled trades, three of the girls – Sierra Mark, Brooke Brown, and Tashara Mays – drew big smiles by sweeping the welding competition. These ladies – each from a different career tech school – took first, second, and third place ahead of dozens of male competitors.

Ironically, none of the girls seemed to think their winning performance was that big a deal.

“I’m the least creative person I know – I can’t draw at all. But, when it comes to welding, I can actually make stuff. And I love it,” said Sierra, a senior at Apollo Career Center in Lima and the MakerFest 2015 gold medal winner.

Brooke from Vantage Career Center and Tashara from Lima Senior High agree.

“I didn’t really know I liked welding until I started doing it and discovered I was good at it,” Brooke said.

“When I got a set of LEGOs as a kid, that was the best thing I ever got… and now I feel the same way about welding!” said Tashara.

And then there’s Tracey Long, an 11th grader at the Elida High School. Tracey secured a special grand prize of her own while at MakerFest – she got a job offer from Diamond Manufacturing. Heitmeyer offered her a welder position after she graduates from high school.

Makerfest 2015 in Lima Ohio

Tracey Long from Elida High School.

Tracey says she’s definitely excited about the offer. But first she says she wants to weld for the military. She has her eye on the US Air Force, and is considering training for a highly specialized underwater welding gig that can easily pay $100k+ income for a top-shelf performer.

Not bad for someone right out of school with no college.

These four girls would clearly be career anomalies, except they are not alone. Girls are beginning to discover welding as a possible career pathway more and more every year, with impressive results.

Gary Cearns, the welding instructor at Lima Senior High School, says that his girl students demonstrate strengths he often doesn’t see in their male counterparts. “In my teaching experience, females in high school display higher maturity levels than males.”

And that higher maturity makes for a better worker, says Cearns. “Girls typically work more meticulously and complete the program at higher levels than boys.”

But enrollment by girls in high school welding programs is nowhere near what it needs to be to make a dent in industry demand. At Lima Senior, Cearns says the enrollment in his school’s welding and metal fabricating program is only about 10-percent  female. And he’s tracking the female welder percentage for the entire industry overall at only about 5-percent.

A big part of what is still keeping girls away from the welding torch is the legacy misperception that all “factory work” is performed in filthy, unsafe environments.

According to Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), this is simply not the case – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“Many view manufacturing jobs as dark, dirty and dangerous, a caricature of what they were decades ago. Such perceptions could not be further from the reality of today’s industry,” he wrote in his article Manufacturing the next generation: how to teach millennials to make things in the United States.

“Manufacturing is sleek, it is high tech, and it is exciting.”

So what can we do to change this misperception and get more girls interested in welding?

If the experiences of Sierra, Brooke, Tashara, and Tracey are any indication, the answer is pretty simple. Remove the inappropriate stigma by making it a group activity at school. Put a welding torch in their hands, and let them try it. Odds are that a large percentage of the girls will discover that they really enjoy welding. And that, not unlike Sierra, Brooke, Tashara, and Tracey, they are really, REALLY good at it!

If that isn’t enough to bring the girls to a welding career, add the facts that welding is eager to accept girls as well as guys, does not require a college degree, has endless career paths, can include incredible world travel opportunities, will always be in demand, and has the ability to generate the salary of a doctor or lawyer.

Those girls are quick studies. Some of them will give welding a shot. And America’s future will glow as brightly as the welding torch in their capable hands.