CEDAR RAPIDS — Growing up, Janet Nielson liked to spend time in the garage “messing around with things.” The Cedar Rapids native would work on bicycles and other projects, using tools available around the house.
“I always ruined a lot of things. I always figured out a way to fix it, whether it’d be wrong or right,” Nielson recalled with a big laugh.
Although she loved to work with her hands, she never thought about how that could translate into a career. Now the 45-year-old is a production welder at Pickwick Manufacturing Services in Cedar Rapids and the only woman among the 30 welders on staff.
A welder is a hot commodity in an industry that is increasingly in need of skilled welders, and industry officials say now is a prime time for women to consider careers in a field that remains largely dominated by men.
Of the more than 411,000 welding-related employees in the United States, only 21 percent are female, according to a 2014 National Center for Welding Education and Training occupation overview report.
But by 2024, the report projects demand for welding jobs will increase 30 percent — that’s an additional 45,990 welding jobs in the next decade.
More jobs than people
“Iowa definitely has the same trend,” said David Landon, manager of welding engineering for Vermeer Corp. in Pella. “There are more jobs available than people to fill them.”
Iowa had 9,925 people working in the welding profession in 2012, according to Iowa Workforce Development data. The average annual salaries were $35,038 and $36,855.
About 700 of those jobs were located in a region that includes Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties. Gender breakdown was not available.
Landon, who also is the 2015 American Welding Society president, said it’s a great time for women to seek jobs in welding. He said the AWS 2013 President Nancy Cole made increasing women’s awareness about welding careers a priority during her tenure.
“There’s an untapped resource out there that can help us meet the need for additional welders because there’s not that many women in the field right now …. There shouldn’t be anything that should hold a young girl or young women back from a career in welding because it’s a great opportunity,” Landon said.
Jeff Mitchell, Kirkwood Community College’s industrial technology dean, admitted the program does struggle with enrolling women in the industrial technology programs. He said there continues to be a steady stream of one or two female students in welding classes although that hasn’t changed since he began teaching 36 years ago.
Of the 75 participants in the fall 2014 welding credit program, only one was a woman.
Mitchell said studies have shown having an influence on a child’s potential career track can start as early as middle school and is one possible reason why not as many women consider manufacturing or welding careers.
“I call it environmental, it’s the way they’re raised, the toy that they play with,” he said. “It’s the gifts they receive at Christmastime. They’re kind of funneled in one direction at an early age. It definitely influences the choices they make.”
He said over the past six years or so, the industrial technology program has developed ways to make sure boys and girls learn about opportunities in industrial careers from an early age. This includes career days and a summer Kirkwood Interactive Camps for Kids program that includes welding.
Landon said tat in his experience anyone — man or woman — with exceptional hand-eye coordination is going to excel in the field.
Nielson is one of only a few women welders in the Cedar Rapids area as several local companies say they’re simply not seeing a lot of women applicants. Meanwhile, employers keep seeking to fill positions.
“We’re not turning (welders) away at the door,” said Walt Corey, president and CEO of Pickwick Manufacturing Services. “We need about three or four welders now.”
There will be a projected 3,500 more welding jobs that will be available in Iowa between 2012 and 2022, according to IWD data.
On a recent Monday morning, Nielson, her brown hair tied in a ponytail, is found assembling a large air filter amid the melody of loud booms and clashes that echo throughout the 100,000-square-foot facility. Welding sparks skitter across metal, and hot beads ping across the surface.
Nielson turned to welding after a friend suggested she look into it and felt dissatisfied working in finance at General Electric. In 2001, she enrolled in a four-year apprenticeship program in Pekin, Ill., which was through the state’s Department of Labor.
Nielson has worked at Pickwick Manufacturing for seven years and, although she earns more in her new career, what she loves most is the daily challenge the job presents.
“There’s always room to learn, and that’s what I like most about it. I’m never stuck in a rut, there’s never a day that I wake up and not want to go to work,” she said.
“I like working with my hands and building things and when it’s all done, looking back and saying, ‘I did that.’”