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USU’s expanded welding program is opening the door for more women in the trades

Welding instructor Chloe Wilson cuts a metal ribbon at the opening of Utah State University’s new Technical Education Building in Blanding, Oct. 6, 2023.
Dennis Hinkamp
Utah State University
Welding instructor Chloe Wilson cuts a metal ribbon at the opening of Utah State University’s new Technical Education Building in Blanding, Oct. 6, 2023.

When Chloe Wilson went to welding school a few years ago, she was often the only woman in the room. Same thing when she went to work as a welder in Salt Lake City.

So she decided to do something about it.

Earlier this year, she launched a Women in Welding workshop at Utah State University’s Moab campus. She’s now at the USU campus in Blanding, where she built a new welding program that opened this fall with the completion of the school’s Technical Education Building.

“I feel a lot of responsibility towards showing up and showing what women can do in this industry and proving that women are capable,” Wilson said. “I think that really opens up their eyes for who can be in this industry and do it successfully.”

The response has confirmed she’s filling a need. After leading a second round of workshops in Moab this fall, she said, there’s now a big waitlist for the next one — tentatively planned for the spring.

It’s all part of the goal Wilson had when she took this instructor job: to reach women who might not have viewed skilled trades as something for them.

“Women don't see other women welding very often,” Wilson said. “Women don't think they can do this as a career because people don't say that they can, and they don't see themselves represented. I think that's a huge barrier.”

USU Moab student Hailee Beckstrom took Wilson’s welding class in the spring and is now working at a welding shop in town while she finishes the certificate program, which can be completed in just two or three semesters.

She didn’t always think of welding as a potential long-term plan for her, but after learning from Wilson, that’s changed.

“It was so inspiring to see her teach and to have her tell us about her career and all these jobs that she's done,” Beckstrom said. “It made me realize how much I loved it.”

Opening the door for more women to enter the welding field meets a critical need for the industry, too. The American Welding Society estimates the U.S. will need 360,000 new welders by 2027, and 2022 numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show just 5% of welders nationwide are women.

Trades like welding and truck driving — the other focus at the new building in Blanding — face nationwide worker shortages, often fueled by similar causes. The aging workforce is retiring. Demand for the services is still high. And there aren’t enough young people entering the field.

Kristian Olsen, vice president of USU’s Moab and Blanding campuses, said meeting the need for both local industries and communities is a big part of why USU is choosing to expand these training programs.

“As a higher education industry, we have to be flexible or else at the end of the day, we would eventually become irrelevant as the economy changes and desires change,” Olsen said. “We have to adapt.”

That’s especially important, he said, for campuses in rural areas like southeast Utah because their communities don’t have many other higher education options nearby. So if the local campus doesn’t offer a variety of paths to good-paying available jobs, it’s doing the community a disservice.

“We're always going to need our teachers and our doctors and our lawyers … but in rural Utah, there's only so many of those jobs. But when you get into these trades and industries, there are more jobs than people.”

The new training facility in Blanding is housed in a former department store space on Main Street and includes the campus’ first welding lab, a truck driving simulator, two classrooms and a truck maintenance lab.

Olsen noted that San Juan County, where Blanding is located, has the highest poverty rate of any county in the state. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows welders make an average salary north of $50,000.

Next year, Olsen said, USU plans to break ground on a new building at its Monument Valley campus — located within the Navajo Nation — to introduce the welding program there.

For instructor Wilson, learning to weld opened her eyes to a career that didn’t require her to pile up student loan debt and let her do what she loves. Now, she hopes to share that experience with more women who might find they enjoy the view through a welding helmet, too.

“It's really magical,” Wilson said. “The high voltage and the electricity and the flames … When you're in the zone with welding, it's just a really peaceful, Zen, focused space.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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