A group of women visiting Helena College last week experienced a hands-on demonstration in programs like welding and aviation maintenance to encourage more women to enter different career paths.
Helena College started Women in Gear in 2013 to respond to a demand for skilled workers in trade and introduce women who are interested, but might be intimidated by male-dominated programs. The program has had up to 70 women in attendance in past years with small groups rotating through welding, aviation maintenance, machining, fire and rescue, and auto and diesel mechanics.
Ryan Loomis, an admissions counselor at Helena College, said more women are entering trade programs and currently make up about 20 percent of enrollment across the five programs. In the welding rotation, three of four girls in the group already had experience in welding. At the end of two years, they could have an associate’s degree in industrial welding and metal fabrication. The group’s eyes lit up when an instructor talked about graduates starting jobs in the $30-an-hour range.
After completing an associate’s degree, Instructor Phillip Holcombe said, students can also take two years of online business courses through Montana State University Northern and receive a bachelor’s degree in trade management and be qualified for management positions that could be better paying. The bachelor’s degree also gives students a chance to either find a job using the skills they learned with an associate’s degree or run their own business.
“People are looking for welders all over the place,” he said.
Holcombe told the group that the hands-on program makes sure students are welding as much as possible. After the first year of the program, students can personalize what area or type of welding they want to focus on.
Loomis said Helena College has a good reputation in the state and employers often come to recruit graduates for jobs. Students graduating from Helena College have more options for jobs early on, he said.
“We have very high percentage rates of employment,” he said.
With an impending statewide workforce shortage, one strategy to address is to limit how long people are out of the workforce to complete training and education. Helena College offers a night class in welding that allows high school seniors to complete a certificate of applied science in welding technology by the time they graduate high school.
“One year out of high school they can complete this associate’s degree and be very competitive,” Loomis said.
Claudia Downing, a senior at Helena High School, said she came to Women in Gear because she wants to be a pilot. She wanted to go through the aviation maintenance rotation because she thinks it’s important to understand how the whole plane runs. She’s also applying for a wildland firefighting job this summer and said the rotation on fire and rescue would be helpful. The group learned to operate hoses and was familiarized with the truck.
Downing said the majority of pilots are also men, and it was helpful to be introduced to different trades with other women.
“It’s making me more undaunted,” she said.