By Brooke Schumann
Deciding on a career choice for oneself is never easy. Many of us unhappily jump around from job to job trying to find that “one” job we love waking up for every day. Many times we want a job we don’t have the prerequisite skills to qualify for, so we end up stuck. You may be good at a number of things, but still feel like you can’t make a living when you choose just one to master. Nicole (Baumhardt) Brown, 31 years old, from Fond du Lac, WI, can relate. Nicole went from a stay-at-home mom and student to becoming a Welder/Fabricator at Apache Stainless Equipment Corporation, and going through quite a few different jobs in between. Her dedication to her education and ambitions to find the right career for herself is inspiring.
Throughout her youth, Nicole loved building things. Whether it was playing with legos or assembling her art and science kits, Nicole never shied away from a challenge and always found ways to learn and experience new things. She told her parents at a young age she wanted to be a surgeon. As she was growing up, little did she know instead of doing surgery, she would one day be doing surgery like work on metal. Until then, she would journey to explore potential careers that align with her two passions, art and science.
In 2004, the adventure for her career began after her graduation from Fond du Lac High School. Nicole admits, “I wasn’t sure what my plan was after graduation. I wasn’t confident in my math skills. Looking back, I should have gotten a tutor.” However, Nicole didn’t let uncertainty drive her away from furthering her education. She went on to UW Fond du Lac and received her Associates of Arts and Sciences. She focused her curriculum on art, hoping to eventually transfer to UW-Oshkosh or UW-Stout for Graphic Design or Art Therapy programs. However, Nicole ended up becoming a phlebotomist at the Fond du Lac Regional Clinic West. She thoroughly enjoyed being a phlebotomist because it allowed her to express her more scientific side.
Nicole moved to Washington State. She explains, “When I was twenty-two years old, I decided to move to Washington State with a friend and eventually got married to my husband, who was in the Navy. Because he was in the service, we moved around a lot.” Nicole quickly got a job at a custom picture framing and art supply store, where a very unique opportunity presented itself to her. She reveals, “I was picture framing certificates for an oral surgeon in town and later that day he called me and offered me a job. I was shocked! Next thing I knew, I was his surgical assistant for a few months. That was a lot of fun and different as well. I progressed from assisting with surgeries to taking patient x-rays. I ended up moving to the receptionist spot, because he flew in his other assistants from Iowa.” It was quite the winding road for Nicole, but she enjoyed the challenge and loved learning new things. Unfortunately, the oral surgeon closed his business and Nicole was onto her next big move.
In a year’s time, Nicole moved to Virginia Beach with her husband. After all of the job switching, Nicole wanted to concentrate on furthering her education. She confesses, “I really wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree. So I went to a community college in Virginia Beach and got my Associates of Science in Science. I thought if we stayed there I could transfer to ODU (Old Dominion University) for medical technology, but before I could we moved to Hawaii.” Aside from going to school, riding her Harley, and playing roller derby, she found out she was pregnant with her son, Jason.
In Hawaii, Nicole felt a little stuck. She expresses, “When we moved to Hawaii, it was hard because I didn’t have much family support there because I was so far away. I wanted to go to the University of Hawaii, but they required their AS-MLT degree first.” Nicole decided to turn back to her love for art. She signed up for an online course through Southern New Hampshire University and got her Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design and Media Arts. After living on Oahu for 3 years, she moved back to her hometown of Fond du Lac, WI. It had all come full circle.
Nicole explains what was going through her head, “When I moved back, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. My phlebotomy experience expired because it has to be two years current and my graphic design portfolio was very entry-level. I wanted to work on it more but I didn’t have time. So I was stuck again. I thought, ‘Do I go back to school? Do I just find a job until I figure it all out?’” After looking on Indeed.com, Nicole found a long list of welding positions in the Fond du Lac and surrounding area. Nicole shares, “I typed in welding and female welders on You Tube and after watching many videos, I thought it looked really cool and that it would be fun to learn.” She was hooked. She now needed to get an education to become certified.
Nicole found her key to education for welding through her local newspaper. She says, “I saw a boot camp ad in the paper where you pay a program fee, and the employer pays for the training while the employee earns a wage as they are learning onsite at the manufacturing facility. I enrolled in the boot camp, and I thought if it didn’t work out, it would be another skill learned.”
According to Nicole the boot camp was very different than the typical academic setting. It consisted of a different crowd and a different atmosphere. There was a bit of an adjustment period for Nicole, who questioned, “What am I doing here?” She knew as long as she possessed a growth mindset, she could do anything she put her mind to.
The instructor for Nicole’s boot camp was Andrew Luby, the Economic and Workforce Development Welding Instructor at Moraine Park Technical College. He has been in this position for three years. He says, “The boot camp is a short-term, low-cost solution. We teach the exact same courses as the welding program’s technical diploma. Instead of a 1 year timeframe, the boot camp accelerates the coursework into 15 weeks. If you pass the courses, you receive an Entry Level Welding Certificate.
Another pillar of education for the boot camp is to have hands-on experience. This component of the program is where each student must intern at local companies and practice welding directly in that facility. If they prove to be a good fit, they have the opportunity to be directly hired on. Andrew shares, “We have an 89% success rate for first time placement of our students from our boot camp program.” The boot camp program is aligned with school year terms. It runs twice a year. The next upcoming welding boot camp will be at Moraine Park Technical College’s Beaver Dam campus for Fall of 2017. This program is grant funded.
Nicole further explains the company selection process, “There is an initial two days called the test drive. The instructors tell us what local companies are involved in the boot camp program. They also have a meet and greet luncheon with employers. My goal was to talk to everyone there. In my research, I knew TIG welding generally paid more, because it is a higher skill to know, it is cleaner and more artistic. I thought to myself, I need to talk to Pam from Apache.”
Pam Korth is the Human Resources Manager at Apache Stainless Equipment Corporation. When reflecting on Nicole, Pam shares, “What’s inspiring is that we have this person who wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do, who happened upon this great opportunity with the boot camp and took a chance on going through that whole process.”
Pam also serves as the Chairperson for the Dodge County Manufacturing Business Alliance, which works to close the skills gap by bringing together manufacturers and educators in the local community and surrounding areas to promote manufacturing jobs as a viable option for people. Pam says, “It became apparent to me and other manufacturers in the area that we were pulling employees from each other. I would hire a person away from the manufacturer down the street. Vice versa. What also became apparent was that we lost our connections to education. We have since developed strong relationships with the schools.” There are a multitude of programs Apache offers to help reach out to schools, youth, and welders looking for employment opportunities. Some of the individuals that are a part of Manufacturing Business Alliance have partnered with the boot camp, thus increasing the pool of companies for potential placement.
Nicole expressed her interest in Apache as an employer right away. Nicole shares, “We got to rank our choices and I put Apache down as my number one. So when Pam called me I was thrilled and then went for an interview. I was accepted and went to Apache for the internship.” Nicole was ready to begin her first steps in her new career. Welding combined her passions for science, craftsmanship, and art by carefully constructing these complicated welds.
The first day starting somewhere new can be difficult. For Nicole, as a woman entering a male dominated career field, it makes proving yourself a bit more challenging. She explains, “It was a little intimidating walking in because I felt like everyone was looking at me and thinking, ‘Who is this girl?’ I felt like I was under a microscope.”
Nicole didn’t let the extra attention hinder her natural artistic talents and ability to weld. She made sure she put out only her best work hoping Apache would hire her. She adds, “As my internship progressed I could tell everyone here took a lot of pride in what they do. The people who work here are so talented, and I hope I can achieve that level of skill some day. I had to go through a lot of mental gymnastics of self-consciousness, anxiety, and insecurities to do my best and forget the rest.”
As more women may be interested in this male dominated profession, Nicole strongly encourages their involvement. She says, “Go for it! Don’t let society’s stereotypes scare you away. You can do it if you’re willing to put in hard work. It is a learned skill. Don’t be afraid to give it a shot and push yourself out of your comfort level. It can be rewarding and fun and there is no shortage of jobs.”
After the duration of her internship, Pam approached Nicole and offered her a job in Apache’s contracting department. Nicole accepted. Here, she is expected to do a lot of parts quickly, while following the specifications of each customer. Her efforts have been remarkable and she is considered a great asset to the company. According to her superiors, she is a very good welder. Nicole is an official welder/fabricator at Apache Stainless Equipment Corporation, and, now, possesses a ASME 6G TIG and MIG Weld Certification as well as her entry level Welder Certificate from MPTC. She’s also Forklift and Crane Certified.
Nicole says “Every day I come to work, I try to make a better weld and improved metal finishing job.” After a long journey of education and employment changes, Nicole has found a job that challenges her and she gets to use both her artistic and scientific side. Nothing has meant more to Nicole than all the support her family has shown her in her journey up to this point. She confesses, “I couldn’t have done it without the support of my mom, dad, husband, and my son. All of the support from my family and friends has meant the world to me.”