Melissa was just 22 years old when she enrolled in Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.’s Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class (TACC) – a pre-apprenticeship program preparing women for success in the building, construction, mechanical, and utility trades. She was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan which is on the west side of the state, not too far from Lake Michigan. Here is her story:
I left home at 18, and after traveling all over the country and working seasonal jobs in Montana, I met my current partner, and about 3 and a half years ago, by chance, ended up staying in Portland.
Before starting my training at OTI last year, I was unemployed. I worked a few odd jobs here and there .. farmer’s markets, bakeries, and did farm work in Montana each year. I was homeless off and on. A lot of it had to do with not being satisfied with where I was and what I was doing. I was moving around too much and ended up completely broke more often than not. The seasonal farm work I had done in Montana each year provided me with a little bit of savings, but I couldn’t find a full time job that paid well and held my interest. OTI’s pre-apprenticeship program and the people I met while going through the class helped me realize that the jobs I had dreamed about being able to get were actually possible.
I learned about OTI’s class from a couple of friends who told me about either going through the program or having a partner who did. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go through with it at first. It seemed so intimidating to walk into a classroom again after years of avoiding it to learn something I was completely unfamiliar with. I was a little afraid of failing (isn’t everyone?), and thought, ‘What if I do this and it doesn’t work out either?‘ Luckily, I have some people in my life who are very supportive, and they talked me into it. I’m pretty damn glad they did.
During my time with OTI, the biggest thing I noticed were the changes within myself. I felt timid and unsure about the class and everything when I started. At the end, everything had completely changed. My classmates and instructors had gotten me so excited about the new opportunities that lay ahead, and I felt more confident and stronger than ever. I finally had some idea of where I wanted my work/career to go. Plus, we did all those killer fitness training work outs, and after getting through those, I think we all felt like we could accomplish anything!
I started at Gunderson, LLC, a part of the Greenbrier Companies. Currently, I’m a fitter welder. When I began training in September of 2014, they started me out at $12.60 an hour. After a month of training and passing some weld tests, they bumped me up to $16.80 an hour, and I am now earning $18.65 an hour! And I will receive another raise after I am here for a year.
The best thing about welding is how extremely satisfying it feels to lay out beautiful, strong welds. It’s a really fun trade! I’m also slightly competitive and work in a pretty fast paced, production environment, so I like to time myself and see what I can do to be faster and still pump out high quality parts. I really love the fitting aspect of it too, all the measuring and putting things perfectly in place. I’ve always liked detailed jobs. At Gunderson, we get to make parts for train cars/ whole train cars, and I’m sort of a nerd for trains, so it’s cool to be a part of producing them.
Moving ahead, I’d really like to learn more welding processes, get some certifications, and explore other areas of production. I’m at the very beginning of this journey and know I still have a lot to learn. In the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to work for myself, so that’s also something I’d like to work up to over the next few years.
Two years ago, I would have never imagined being able to accomplish what I have in the past year. It’s crazy how much has happened! OTI really gave me a lot of confidence and is such a valuable resource and support system. I honestly don’t think I could have done all of this so quickly on my own and am incredibly grateful for what OTI has taught me and helped me with.
Whether it was relearning my shop math, helping me find connections to learn about welding, or literally sending my resume to an employer and helping me get an interview, OTI has been there. Things felt a little hopeless before I went through the pre-apprenticeship program. Now I have a job that I love, my own apartment and a little extra income to use to enjoy doing things I couldn’t be doing otherwise. It’s awesome!
If I were to give any advice to other women considering pursing an apprenticeship and a career in the trades is to do it! Plain and simple. Some days are really going to suck and you might want to quit, while others are exhilarating and fun. It can be frustrating, but it’s totally worth it in the end. What you learn and what you challenge yourself to do will only make you stronger.
Oh, and I would also recommend that you get lots of sleep, eat well, and exercise often! Saying please, thank you and staying calm in tough work situations will get you a long way with all of your coworkers. Also, never be afraid to ask for help, it shows that you have the desire and will to learn.
Check out the Public Service Announcement Bank of America developed about OTI’s Women in Metals & Manufacturing program which features Melissa!